Calls to close private tutor GCSE and A-level loophole

GCSE and A-level rules do not appear to prohibit the use of private tutors as scribes, prompting fears privileged students can 'game the system'

Catherine Lough

Fears have been raised that the new tougher GCSEs are leaving lower-ability students even further behind

An influential MP and major teaching union have called for an end to a "loophole" in exam regulations allowing pupils to use their private tutor as a scribe.

The apparent lack of GCSE and A-level rules to prevent the tactic has prompted fears that privileged students could use their tutors to "game the system". 

They have been raised after a private tutor claimed in a Times article they had been paid £3,000 to help a pupil cheat while acting as their scribe – but actually answering for them – in an A-level history exam.

They said the exam had taken place in a "sought after" independent school where families were “free to arrange their own scribe". 

Under exam boards' Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ), regulations for access arrangements for candidates with special educational needs, disabilities or temporary injuries, there are no specific guidelines prohibiting a candidate from using their private tutor as a scribe in exams.

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While JCQ guidelines state that a pupil must not normally use their subject teacher friend, peer or relative as a scribe, there is no explicit guidance to prevent them from using a private tutor.

JCQ also asks exam centres – schools and colleges – to complete a form declaring any conflict of interest between members of staff and candidates. But this would not cover scribes if they were tutors not employed by the school.

JCQ refused to acknowledge the loophole, and other leading examination bodies did not respond to a request for comment.

Lucy Powell, an influential Labour MP who sits on the Commons education select committee, said: “Any concerns about exam cheating must be taken extremely seriously and ministers should now review the rules around using private tutors as scribes to ensure already advantaged pupils do not game the system.”

“It’s vital that we have confidence in our exam system.”

The NASUWT teaching union also expressed concern over the loophole.

Chris Keates, general secretary of NASUWT said: “While this seems to be an issue limited to only a small number of cases, it is a loophole in the system which can, and in some rare cases, is apparently being exploited.

“This practice is not only giving some students an unfair advantage, it favours those who are already in a position to be able to access private tuition.

“To eliminate this, there needs to be further clarification added into the JCQ regulations that specify exactly who can be used as a scribe, and who they can be selected by.

“The JCQ’s Independent Commission into Malpractice is currently investigating suspected malpractice in examinations and assessments and the NASUWT would anticipate this issue regarding scribes will be considered by the commission.

“We would also expect Ofqual to ensure any loopholes identified are closed so that public trust and confidence in the integrity of the qualifications system is maintained."

A JCQ spokesperson claimed that "scribes must be appointed by the head of centre and it would not be acceptable for them to appoint a candidate’s personal tutor to act as a scribe in an examination".

"Anyone caught in breach of these guidelines would be subject to sanctions,” he added.

However, when asked to show where the regulations prohibited the use of a private tutor as a scribe, the spokesperson pointed Tes to rules that only say the scribe "appointed must not normally be the candidate’s own subject teacher and must not be a relative, friend or peer of the candidate".

It is understood that exam boards think it highly unlikely that parents would be able to influence who headteachers appointed as a scribe, and that all invigilators were trained to identify any malpractice.

Barnaby Lenon, chair of the Independent Schools Council, said he thought it would be “extraordinary for a school to allow parents to choose a scribe”.

He said that if the tutor’s story were true, it would be a case of “appalling cheating which puts the school, the student and the scribe at great risk”.

Mr Lenon said that if the cheating were detected, the student would lose their qualifications, and that it would be “bizarre” for schools to allow parents to influence the choice of scribe.

Referring to Sir John Dunford’s forthcoming review of exam malpractice, Mr Lenon said that “if there is not a rule about this, then there should be”.

Mike Buchanan, of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, said that the allegations “if true”, were a “serious case of malpractice”.

Mr Buchanan said that in his experience schools had to organise access arrangements by February, and that school leaders would usually appoint an invigilator or classroom assistant as a scribe.

He said that if pupils used private tutors as their scribe to cheat, it was “very unusual, and, on the face of it, fraudulent”.

Mr Buchanan said the allegations were not related to school type and reflected poorly on “parents and their willingness to break the rules”.

“It’s a serious case of malpractice and fraud, and every school would want that loophole – if it exists – to be closed,” he said.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “While we are sure that most private tutors are people of integrity, there is a clear conflict of interest in allowing them to act as scribes in exams.

“It makes the system open to abuse and undermines public confidence. This practice should be banned and any loophole in this regard must be closed swiftly.”

In The Times, a private tutor recently claimed he wrote his students’ A-level exam papers for them while employed as a scribe, securing them top grades through cheating.

The anonymous tutor said he worked with pupils from one of the UK’s “most sought-after private schools”, describing how families were “free to arrange their own scribe”.

He alleged he was paid £3,000 by a family to write model history A-level answers for one candidate.

The tutor coached the pupil beforehand so they could read what he had written “in a way that sounds as though the student is thinking spontaneously”.

A JCQ spokesperson said: “The scenario described in The Times article is not that of a genuine A-level or GCSE exam. JCQ regulations are clearly laid out for centres."

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author bio

Catherine Lough

Catherine Lough is a reporter at Tes.

Find me on Twitter @CathImogenLough

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