There was a time, not so very long ago, when it would have been difficult to leak an exam paper. Anybody minded to do so would not only have had to get hold of the paper, but they would also have needed sufficient time to find some buyers, physically copy the paper and find a way to distribute it to them, all without being detected.
The advent of social media has changed all that.
Now all it takes is an online post with a couple of blacked-out questions and a price tag of £70 for the whole paper, and the exam board has to launch a major operation to establish the scale of the breach and deal with the fallout.
Here then is the situation in which Edexcel operator Pearson found itself at the end of last week over the leak of an A-level maths paper. And to its credit, it moved quickly in narrowing down the source of the leak to a geographic area, visiting every school in that area, and finding one centre in "serious breach of correct practice".
Pearson’s senior vice-president for UK schools, Sharon Hague, has written to exam centres to explain in detail the steps that will now be taken to ensure fairness to all students. And Edexcel has also taken the prudent step of replacing an A-level paper for further maths after discovering that a packet containing the paper was opened at the centre that is under investigation.
Exam leaks 'are very few'
This was an impressive response to a difficult situation. It should give confidence to centres that everything that can be done is being done.
And the findings of Sir John Dunford’s commission into exam malpractice, due to report in September, will give further guidance about how those of us involved in exams may navigate more securely through a changing world.
But many students and their teachers will rightly be feeing a mix of anxiety, disappointment and fury.
And all of us will feel concern at the giddying scale of the action that has had to be taken because of the uncontrollable nature of an online world.
An exam leak in the era of social media is a wildfire that proliferates so quickly that it is virtually impossible to contain and takes enormous effort to dampen down.
And it does not stop there. As Tes has reported, exams boards are facing an uphill struggle to remove fraudulent posts on social media from people claiming to have leaked GCSE papers. In some cases, individuals have posted photos of past papers with the date doctored, to try to con candidates into parting with cash.
But what can we possibly do to tackle these issues, given that social media is here to stay?
To start with we need to put things into perspective. The scale of the public examination system is enormous and the number of security breaches is small in comparison. Last year, there were a total of 68 breaches. Of these, 40 were due to schools or colleges opening, and sometimes handing out, the wrong exam paper, while only 14 involved a "leak of materials". (You can see the full breakdown in this Ofqual report.)
So, what we have is an inordinately complex exam system that is overwhelmingly administered well by examination officers across schools and colleges, and in which the few breaches that take place are generally of the cock-up variety.
But none of that is much consolation when a leak happens and students who are already anxious find the paper that they have just worked so hard to complete has potentially been doing the rounds online ahead of the exam.
So, it seems to me then that we need to take some immediate action in the short term, and to think more deeply about our exam system in the longer term.
Social media wildfires
First, the immediate action. We might not be able to stop social media wildfires but we can at least make sure our students are armed with the information they need to avoid the pitfalls. Let’s be clear here that most students would not dream of buying leaked papers online, and that they play by the rules. But in a system where the stakes are so high, there are bound to be some who are tempted by what they perceive to be the easy route.
So, it would be a good idea to spell out the dangers: that social media posts that purport to be selling a leaked paper may be an attempt to con you out of some money; and that even if it is for real, and you decide to buy the paper, this constitutes cheating and you could end up having your results withheld. We need students to be trained to see online purdah as a necessary part of the examination process: helping to protect their own mental health.
Many teachers may already be giving their students this sort of advice (in which case, apologies for patronising you) but maybe this is something which Ofqual or the exam boards could help with by issuing updated guidance at the start of each exam season and, then as necessary through the exam season, highlighting not only the existing dangers but any new challenges that arise along the way.
Secondly, of course, we need to reaffirm our collective commitment to ethical leadership and professional conduct. Accountability can put pressure on people to do the wrong thing. But it must never be allowed to justify or excuse such action.
And thirdly, in the longer term, we really must rethink an exam season that has grown to monstrous proportions. It has long been a fixture of our national life but the reforms of recent years, with their emphasis on terminal assessment and stripping out of coursework, have upped the ante even further.
If we could imagine a different system in which there were fewer exams, and the final papers were only a part of how we assessed and guided young people to their future courses and careers, there would be many benefits.
If we took more account of other skills and qualities – less high-stakes, less cheatable – then we’d start to make formal examinations more proportionate. This would be better for our students and our country, and a useful by-product is that it would also reduce any temptation to cheat.
The febrile, feverish atmosphere of our existing system provides the perfect conditions for wildfires. We need to change the climate around exams, rather than having to fight the inevitable fires.
Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders