A fair experience for all our students: tackling exam cheating

Alison Lewis, AQA’s Director of Quality and Customer Standards, looks at the importance of eliminating all forms of cheating

Students sitting examI was at a conference recently where the ethics and culture of teaching were being discussed. One teacher said to me, ‘it's not in an exam board's interests to investigate teacher malpractice.’

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

Any qualification needs to have the confidence of everyone who will ‘use’ it. It has to be trusted by those who take it, those who teach it and those who use the qualification such as employers. So our prime focus is to ensure that all students have a ‘level playing field’ when they take our exams.

If a student gets help from their teacher – either in the exam room or with their coursework – or they get a 'tip off' of what might be coming up in a controlled assessment, then other students are placed at a disadvantage.

So, yes, if there’s an allegation at a school or college, we are effectively investigating one of our customers. But we have a much wider responsibility.

You could say that every employer is technically a customer, because they have to be able to trust our qualifications and what they tell them about their prospective employees.

And then there’s the general public too. If it were to be widely believed that AQA’s results had not been achieved by fair means, who would trust them? Who would value them? Who would want to take our qualifications?

In 2014, Ofqual reported that 119 penalties had been issued to school or college staff, mainly for providing inappropriate help. Every teacher wants the best for their students, but cheating to give them a better result is not in any student’s interest.

I read the following comment on one student website: ‘In many professions you'll need the knowledge you gain by studying instead of cheating. Remember, there is no cheating in the operating room when you're the surgeon.’ 

As a teacher, why give your students false expectations? They may well get that place on a course that they desperately wanted but, when they find that they can’t cope with that course, you’ve caused that student harm.

Also, why risk your career? In my experience, one way or another, you'll be found out: the odd casual comment, data that doesn't stack up, the student who doesn’t want to be part of a fraud, or a whistle-blower.

One way or another, cheating comes to light. And the consequences for those found cheating are severe. Cases often hit the news, and have made it into documentaries such as Channel 4’s recent Dispatches programme.

At AQA, every student is important. We want each of them to have a fair experience so that everyone can trust their results.

We will always investigate where we have concerns and we will take action where we find evidence of cheating.

Frequently, it is the customer, the key decision maker in a school or college, who draws the matter to our attention – the head teacher. Just as AQA’s reputation depends on fairness and fair dealing, so the reputation of schools depends on results having been achieved by fair means.

Head teachers too, in my experience, want what we want – results to have been achieved by fair means. If they find someone in their school has cheated, they want to work with us to investigate the matter and ensure the appropriate action is taken to safeguard the integrity of the exam, which is in everyone’s interests.

And we always keep firmly in mind the interests and well-being of all students – those affected in the school, and the other students who have taken the exam.

In the overwhelming majority of cases, cheating is the result of the actions of an individual acting alone. For cheating to be systemic within an organisation as large as a school, it would be necessary for a conspiracy to be taking place on a massive scale.

My experience is that in such cases – which are extremely rare – the truth, inevitably, leaks out.

Here at AQA, we want to work with our customers to minimise opportunities for any cheating and to ensure that all students get a fair deal in their examinations.

Alison Lewis is Director of Quality and Customer Standards at AQA

This article also appears on the AQA Policy Blog

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