WATCH: Exam malpractice does 'disproportionate' harm

Sir John Dunford, chair of the independent commission on exams malpractice, discusses what his new report reveals

Catherine Lough

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Malpractice is uncommon, but when it happens, it does enormous damage to public confidence in the exams system, according to Sir John Dunford (pictured), chair of an independent commission into the problem.

“There’s a very small amount of malpractice that takes place, both by candidates and by staff in schools and colleges and workplaces – the data is really very, very low,” Sir John said.

Related: Malpractice report calls for all watches to be banned

Background: Will exam malpractice commission focus on complexity?

Quick read: Exam cheating commission wants to 'future proof' the system

Today, he published the findings of the commission, set up by exam membership body the Joint Council for Qualifications to investigate all forms of cheating in the system.

Sir John told Tes that while it is a rare problem, it creates uncertainty around qualifications for the general public.

“When malpractice does occur, it creates a disproportionately bad effect on the system, and particularly where interesting cases appear in the media, it makes people feel that the system is much worse.”

Sir John noted that the UK examination system is “highly regarded internationally” but must be safeguarded against new forms of technology that make it easier to cheat.

The commission’s report advised that all forms of watch – including wristwatches as well as smartwatches – be banned from exam rooms, as invigilators are finding it impossible to distinguish between them.

“The way in which smartwatches are designed means it’s very, very difficult for an invigilator to know if a watch that’s sitting on a desk in front of a candidate is an ordinary watch that helps you to tell the time, or whether it’s a smartwatch, or whether it’s something that can very easily be changed between one and the other,” Sir John said.

He added that this placed “a huge burden on invigilators” and that it was therefore simpler to ban all kinds of watch altogether.

Technology, he said, was both a help and a hindrance where malpractice was concerned. Social media allowed students to spread leaked papers – whether they are real or a hoax, another form of malpractice raised in the report – very rapidly.

“Once an exam paper has been revealed, it can very quickly be publicised across social media, and even sold for monetary gain,” said Sir John.

But he added that technology could also be used to help awarding organisations in identifying leaks.

“It can also be used to help the awarding organisations, both to prevent malpractice and to investigate it when it occurs. For example, examination papers can have some kind of an electronic tag on them so that the papers can’t be opened at any time other than immediately before the examinations.”

In recent investigations into a leak of A-level maths papers during this summer’s exams season, Sir John pointed out that the awarding body, Edexcel, was able to react extremely quickly to identify the centre involved, resulting in two arrests.

The report also highlighted the need to adopt a single, clear definition of malpractice that could easily be understood by candidates themselves.

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