If you had a feeling of déjà vu last Friday afternoon, you weren’t alone.
For the third time in three years, questions from Edexcel’s A-level maths paper were leaked on social media shortly before the exam was due to start, with posts offering the full paper for £70
We don’t know the precise circumstances of the leak yet. Pearson, the owners of the Edexcel exam board, said they identified one exam centre “in serious breach of correct practice”, and they have referred the case to the police as a “criminal matter”.
How the story broke: Edexcel investigating A-level maths exam leak
Police probe: Investigation into ‘criminal’ A-level maths leak
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The incident capped off a dreadful week for Edexcel and has forced it to replace a paper for A-level further maths, which was also subject to a breach at the school or college under investigation. To rub salt into the wounds, the board could be stung by a fine from the exam regulator Ofqual.
Beyond the immediate fallout, the leak prompts several questions. Why Edexcel A-level maths? And is there anything exam boards can do to plug the leaks?
To answer the first one, maths is the highest entry A level, and the Edexcel paper is the most popular – 60,000 candidates sat it this year. It’s also a challenging and high-stakes qualification, featuring among the A levels needed to gain entry to competitive university courses like medicine and veterinary science. For unscrupulous individuals looking to make a buck, it’s a tempting target.
The boards insist they have invested a huge amount in recent years to guard against leaks. They use sophisticated technology which can allow them to accurately pinpoint where a breach has taken place.
Unfortunately, this still means boards are essentially in reactive mode, closing the stable door after the horse has bolted.
Like many organisations, they have been upended by the rise of social media and instant messaging. It only takes one leak for sensitive material to be splashed all over the internet. As well as compromising the assessment, social media allows confusion and anxiety to spread like wildfire among pupils after a leak.
But while technology might be the problem, it could also be the solution. Boards are looking at using artificial intelligence to detect “abnormal” results. And rather than sending out hard copies of papers weeks in advance, candidates could access exams on electronic devices (though their answers might still be on paper). If boards got wind of a leak, they could replace the paper literally minutes before the exam starts.
That brave new world is some years away. In the meantime, all eyes will be on Sir John Dunford’s independent commission into exam malpractice, which is due to report in September.