Rising number of pupils caught bringing phones into exams

Richard Adams Education editor
Photograph: Alamy

Cheating on mobile phones, cyber-attacks on schools and leaked or fake exam papers being shared on social media are among the problems that students and teachers now have to navigate, according to reports by England’s exam regulator.

Data collected by Ofqual, which oversees GCSE and A-level examinations, shows a rising number of students were caught bringing phones into exam venues last summer, while the regulator also reported that schools have been hit with hacking efforts affecting documents stored electronically.

Ofqual said exam boards had reported three cases of “delivery failures” this year caused by cyber-attacks, including the use of ransomware – software that threatens to lock data unless a ransom is paid.

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The regulator also revealed it had held talks with social media companies to combat leaked exam papers being shared or offered for sale on Snapchat and WhatsApp and tackle cases where fake papers were posted online.

“This year, we saw several instances of individuals on social media claiming to have copies of live papers, and in some cases offering them for sale. The exam boards followed up all the posts that we, and they, identified,” Ofqual said in its report on the 2019 exam season.

“Where exam boards were able to identify students, they sanctioned those students who had requested or had shared the information. We also saw an increase in the number of social media posts offering fake exam materials for sale. We are concerned that such practice fuels exam anxiety and undermines confidence in the exam system.”

The regulator said the increased importance of qualifications was leading to individuals taking advantage of weak controls or opportunities to leak or attempt to sell papers.

“The continued growth of smart devices has increased the opportunity to quickly and discreetly capture information, and the reach of social media means that materials can be shared quickly and widely. Platforms such as Snapchat and WhatsApp, alongside the dark web, mean that materials can also be shared privately,” Ofqual said.

Sally Collier, Ofqual’s chief regulator, said: “The reports we have published are the result of a broad range of important work we have conducted in recent months to ensure standards are being maintained and to reinforce confidence in regulated qualifications.”

Ofqual said it issued 3,040 penalties for malpractice to candidates in the course of 2019’s summer exams, a rise of 11% compared with 2018 but still affecting only 0.02% of entries in GCSEs, A-levels and similar exams.

The most common offence was being found with a mobile phone or other communications device, which accounted for almost half of penalties, with most candidates having their marks docked as a result.

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The number of penalties for exam malpractice issued to staff nearly halved compared with 2018, with 335 issued this year after 650 in 2018. Suspension or special conditions were applied to 70 staff, compared with 130 in 2018.

Despite a number of high-profile cases of poor security, Ofqual found that teachers and schools in England had improved their record, with far fewer instances of staff or schools and colleges being issued with penalties for malpractice. Only 110 penalties were issued to 95 exam centres in 2019, compared with 140 penalties to 125 centres the previous year.

Ofqual also reported that an increasing number of A-level grades were changed after being challenged by candidates. After last summer’s exams, just over 13,000 grades were revised, 8% more than in 2018, meaning that about one in 60 exam results were changed.

The proportion of GCSE grades amended – 1.1% of all awarded – was unchanged from 2018.