Inside Exams

Podcast series two now available

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Teacher Craig Barton is back with series two of Inside Exams, the podcast that gives you an access all areas pass to snoop around behind the scenes at AQA.

He’ll be meeting the people who write and mark your students’ exams, as well as pioneering teachers, to get answers to all the questions you ponder throughout the school day.

© AQA 2019

Exam rules: investigations integral to integrity

Series two
Bonus one | 27 January 2020

How is malpractice investigated? Bill Johnston and Lalita Handford are both exams integrity leads at AQA; they talk through how potential cases of malpractice reach them, who investigates, and what kind of resolutions cases can come to.

Featured in this podcast

Craig Barton – Maths teacher, podcaster and author

Lalita Hanford – Exams Integrity Lead at AQA

Bill Johnston – Exams Integrity Lead at AQA

Lalita: I’m Lalita Hanford, and I’m an Exams Integrity Lead.

Bill: And I’m Bill Johnston, and I’m also an Exams Integrity Lead.

Lalita: Our job encompasses lots of different things, but we’re focusing on our role in terms of investigating potential malpractice that might occur during examinations or non-examined assessments.

Bill: So, I suppose the first step would be to do an initial triage and evaluation of the severity of what’s being alleged, or what’s come in to us, before deciding what course of action needs to be taken. If there’s immediate risk to the integrity of exams, or how we prioritise a case before then determining our investigation plan. In terms of who we need to speak to, what key lines of enquiry we need to follow up and, of course, contacting relevant people, whether that’s the Head of Centre or people internally.

We have colleagues who are more experienced, in terms of recognising key aspects of an allegation that would be a concern. So, for example, whether or not content of a question paper has allegedly been leaked. That can have a huge impact on all the candidates, so that would obviously be something that we would consider to be high-risk and a high priority. All allegations are, of course, considered important, because it’s malpractice. And, in that way, there’s always a risk or a threat to the integrity. But, yeah, it’s generally done by our colleagues, in terms of case analysts looking at these sorts of things.

Lalita: Yeah, and we always want to get all cases resolved as quickly as possible. At the heart of every case there’s an individual who might have, not necessarily their job at risk, but it’s something that they’re worried about. So, we want to get things done in a timely manner. But then, if there’s a high-risk case where, like Bill said, if the examination material might have been leaked and we don’t know how far that might’ve been spread, or there might’ve been a security breach, that’s something that we need to resolve quite quickly, to contain that, if necessary. So, we’ll prioritise those.

Bill: Obviously, during the height of summer, our busy periods, we are getting a lot more than we would be at, say, this time of year, when there’s only a smaller examination series. So, there’s always an element of checking what’s been alleged, whether or not the source of the allegation is credible or, indeed, what’s been said is actually malpractice. Obviously, in terms of what’s being alleged, we will have different strategies or approaches to our investigations that we will need to consider, and the lines of enquiry may differ in terms of the allegation that’s being raised. So, that may necessitate the need for us to interview different people or seek consultation from different areas of the business.

Lalita: So, like Bill said, we’ll draw up our lines of enquiry, decide who we want interviewed, what questions we want asked, and we’ll inform the Head of Centre of that. And then we’ll have a conversation with the Head and we’ll decide whether it’s appropriate for someone at the Centre to conduct the investigation or, in some cases, we might need to go above them. To someone in the Governance Committee, a Trustee, for example, of the school. In some cases, we’ll conduct the interviews ourselves. So, we’ll go into a Centre and interview staff and students, or we might do that over the phone. So, it really depends on the case and who’s involved in that allegation.

Bill: We can do a number of checks, and we do this in the background. We’ll be looking at all sorts of things, depending on the allegation. We can be assessing results. If there are any anomalies statistically, we can be looking for patterns in terms of previous results and marks that have been submitted to us. We can also seek guidance from colleagues within the organisation that may have visited the school or know the school, or have examined that particular school and those candidates. There are other people that we can talk to, and there are other things that we can look into. Just, again, to check to see if the allegation is credible. It’s not a case of we’re looking to prove what’s being said. We’re gathering the evidence that may then need to go before Committee to determine if, on the balance of probability, malpractice has occurred or, indeed, if there’s no case to answer.

Lalita: So, our team deals with both Candidate malpractice and Centre Staff malpractice, and our Case Analysts will deal with the majority of candidate cases. Unless there’s something particularly complex in there that they would need to refer upwards, or if there’s something there that might actually suggest that potential Centre Staff malpractice has occurred, will send a report to student malpractice. And, based on that report, the Case Analyst will usually make that decision fairly quickly.

Whereas, our investigations into Centre Staff malpractice do tend to take a bit longer. We usually allow a couple of weeks for Centres to gather the evidence required. And then, again, like I said, we might need to expand our investigation as we’re further in, to use further information, so that can make it last a bit longer. So, we do have a peak of Candidate malpractice in the summer, as well, as you can imagine, but the turnaround on those cases is usually very quick. Unless it’s towards the more extreme end or there might be multiple disqualifications required, or something like that.

Bill: AQA has an Irregularities and Appeals Committee that’s made up of former Head Teachers, educational professionals. These people are highly-trained and very experienced. They know the workings of schools, they know the regulations and, often, if we’re unable to make a staff decision on a case, the matter will need to be referred to our IAC Committee, who will review all the evidence that’s submitted, the case papers, before making a decision. Again, to protect the integrity of the exam, to ensure that there’s an appropriate sanction to the individual. So, in those circumstances, we’ll notify a school that this is being referred to a Committee. We’ll let the teacher or the Centre have all the case papers that are going to be considered so that they can provide a comment, and then the Committee will review the evidence and make a decision.

Lalita: They make two decisions. So, first of all, like Bill said, they decide on the balance of probabilities whether malpractice has occurred and, if that is the case, what the most appropriate sanction is. So, the sanctions come from the JCQ Suspected Malpractice document. So, they can range from no further action – so the Committee might actually decide that there is no case to answer on the part of that individual and no further action will be taken – up to a warning. Which lasts for a period of two years and is basically just saying, you’ve committed malpractice, what you’ve done is not appropriate and, if you do something similar again or another infraction against the regulations occurs within the next two years, that will be taken into account.

We also issue Sanction of Training, which is quite a supportive measure, really. Just to allow that individual to carry on with their job, but with some more training to make sure that they don’t commit malpractice, again. They might need special conditions, which might involve somebody more senior to them, so maybe their Line Manager, overseeing part of their work, or maybe all of their work, in connection with our exams. Or the most severe sanction is suspension. So, that’s on an individual. They might be suspended from any involvement with our exams for a set period of time, up to five years, is what we issue.

Bill: Yeah. All the sanctions that ourselves or the Committee impose are only related to involvement with AQA exams. We don’t have any authority with continuation in the profession or their continued employment. It’s simply a sanction to say that we feel you’ve committed this offence and, therefore, we’re imposing this sanction so that you’re not involved for a set period of time. Or that, as Lolita says, as a supportive measure to ensure that they are aware of what regulation they’ve breached, and the school or indeed the individual, or both, are putting something in place to make sure that this doesn’t happen again. And also, if the actions of the teacher have allowed those students to gain an advantage, then that is something we consider when making a decision.

Lalita: For Candidate malpractice, again, a sanction of no further action might be … well, it’s not a sanction, but we might say no further action is required because we don’t believe that malpractice has taken place.

Bill: Generally, that will come with words of advice –

Lalita: Yeah.

Bill:– from us, as well, saying that this isn’t necessarily a breach, but it’s an irregularity –

Lalita: You’re steering close.

Bill: Yeah. So, we do want it highlighted to the candidate but, on this occasion, it’s not something that we’ll be taking further.

Lalita: So, a candidate could be issued a warning for, again, a period of two years. They could receive a mark of zero for a component. So, if they, for example, had their mobile phone on them in a maths exam, it’s their Paper 1 Maths exam, they might get a mark of zero for that paper. So, they can still receive an overall grade based on the other components, but they won’t get one for that one. Or they might be disqualified from the whole qualification, so they won’t receive that qualification at all.

So, one of the most common examples of that is if they’ve used a mobile phone in an exam. We can disqualify them from multiple examinations if it’s something that’s occurred across more than one exam, and then we can also disqualify them from all exams in the whole series. Again, if it’s a really severe case of malpractice. And we can bar them, as well, from taking AQA’s exams for a set period of time. But that’s very rare, that we’ll issue that sanction.

Bill: The next stage will be whether or not an individual wishes to appeal the sanction imposed. And that’s another, quite a large part, of the work that we do, is to represent and to, not argue the case, but just to –

Lalita: Present AQA’s case.

Bill: – present AQA’s case and explain the process by which the decision was reached. And every decision that we make, we try to – and we are actually now required to – inform that person or that school as to why we’ve made this decision. Again, it’ll be on the balance of probability, but there will be aspects of the evidence that has been submitted that we will highlight to say… I mean, the obvious one would be if somebody admitted it. Then we’d say, well, you’ve admitted on page six that you did this, and therefore we’re satisfied that malpractice did occur in doing so. But there can be mitigation that needs to be put forward and, of course, that can be done during an appeal, at which point sanctions can be overturned or, indeed, upheld.

Lalita: I think, also, for any teachers or members of Centre staff who do end up as part of a malpractice investigation, I think we always really try to stress that we are just conducting a fact-finding exercise. If we receive an allegation or a report of suspected malpractice, we have to investigate it. And like Bill has said previously, we’re not trying to prove that this has happened. We’re just trying to gather the evidence to decide whether, on the balance of probabilities, it has or it has not. So, lots of our cases may turn out for there to be no evidence to substantiate the allegation and, in those cases, we will take no further action. But it’s really important that staff are aware that they just need to be honest and comply with the investigation, and it’s not us trying to prove –

Bill: Teachers work incredibly hard.

Lalita: Yeah.

Bill: We know that. And they prepare their candidates and they do a fantastic job. And the last thing that we want to happen is for something, a breach, to occur where a teacher was unaware, that they weren’t able to do something, and for that to have an impact on those students’ lives, or those results. And teachers are incredibly upset when those sorts of things happen. But, at the back of all of this, is that we need to protect the integrity of the exams for all. So that, the school down the road or the school 100 miles away is doing the same thing, and that those candidates are receiving the same opportunities as everybody else. There’s no advantage gained. And that’s something that we have at the back of our mind for all of our investigations.