Surge in GCSE and A-level candidates penalised for ‘malpractice’ in England


This year’s A-level and GCSE exams had a surge in the number of students penalised for potential cheating or disruptive behaviour, with possession of mobile phones and smartwatches the biggest single cause for sanctions.

Ofqual, the exam regulator for England, said more than 4,300 candidates were penalised for “malpractice” during the exams taken this spring. Although the total represents just 0.03% of all A-level and GCSE exams taken, it was a more-than-40% increase compared with 2019, when 3,040 students were penalised.

The possession of mobile phones and similar devices such as tablets or smartwatches in an exam room accounted for 1,845 of the penalties issued, compared with 1,385 in 2019, the last year that formal exams were sat before the coronavirus pandemic.

Most students caught in possession of a mobile phone were sanctioned with marks deducted from their exam paper. Overall, just more than 2,000 candidates were given mark reductions for all causes, while about 1,500 students received warnings.

In the most severe cases, 800 candidates were penalised by having their exam voided, losing all marks. That figure was a 30% increase compared with 2019, when just over 600 students lost all their marks.

More than 6% of penalties were given to candidates for disruptive behaviour before or during exams, while nearly 15% were for inappropriate materials, which Ofqual described as “the inclusion of inappropriate, offensive or obscene materials in scripts, coursework or portfolios”.

Other malpractice statistics published by Ofqual showed declines in the number of teachers and schools who were penalised this year. The number of penalties issued to entire exam centres were down by more than half, with just 60 schools or colleges found guilty of maladministration.

Ofqual also published its report into the conduct of the 2022 exam series, which noted that 14 schools and colleges reported cyberattacks aimed at accessing exam administration software or student work.

The report also revealed a sharp increase in the number of students who received “special consideration” in the marking of their exams for circumstances beyond their control, with more than double the number of candidates being awarded grades despite missing or being unable to sit most of their papers.

The rise, from 21,000 in 2019 to 50,000 this year, came after eligibility was loosened to reflect the disruption caused by the pandemic and students becoming infected with Covid and having to isolate during the exam season.

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Overall, the number of requests for special consideration was similar to 2019 but lower than in 2017 or 2018.

The exam regulator also announced that 21,000 students had suffered delays in receiving their vocational and technical qualifications last summer from the Pearson and OCR examination boards. The slow delivery of BTec results in particular was said to have hampered students applying for university or college places.

Jo Saxtion, the chief regulator, said Ofqual would require grades for vocational and technical qualifications to be issued by a set deadline from next year. It also announced a new taskforce to monitor the delivery of results.



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