Q&A on exam malpractice and results

2 May 2019

We are embarking upon the exam season once again and every year schools face similar issues. This Q&A has been designed to ensure that you are well prepared for the challenges that may lie ahead.

Q1. Where do we start with exam terminology?


  • The regulator of exams in England and Wales is “Ofqual”, which regulates the various Awarding Organisations (“AO”).    
  • The AOs are the exam boards, for example: AQA; OCR; Edexcel; WJEC and Eduqas, - Once recognised by Ofqual, AOs can submit qualifications to the official qualifications frameworks. The AOs then approve Centres to deliver these qualifications.
  • The Centres are the schools, colleges and other education institutions that run/deliver the qualifications.
  • The Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) is the single voice for its 8 member AOs, providing guidance on exam administration and wider education policy, when appropriate.

Q2. What are Ofqual’s regulatory requirements?

All AOs must continually meet the regulatory requirements set out in Ofqual’s General Conditions of Recognition - these rules make sure that qualifications are valid and fit for purpose.

Q3. What are the school’s basic obligations as a Centre?

All Centres must ensure that exams are properly administered. Staff and invigilators need to be trained on and aware of the proper procedure for holding exams and dealing with any incidents that arise, adhere to any JCQ notices to Centres and ensure that any warnings to candidates, for example, about mobile phones, are given in advance of each exam.

Q4. What do we mean by malpractice?

Malpractice may involve candidates/pupils, teachers, invigilators or other administrators. The JCQ guidance confirms that ‘Candidate malpractice’ means malpractice by a candidate in the course of any examination or assessment. Examples include: a breach of the instructions or advice of an invigilator, supervisor, or the AO in relation to the exam rules and regulations; exchanging, obtaining, receiving, passing on information (or the attempt to) which could be exam related by means of talking, electronic, written or non-verbal communication; and/or bringing unauthorised material into an exam, including notes, mobile phones, smart watches or other electronic devices.

Q5. What are the obligations to report malpractice?

Centres have a responsibility to report all alleged, suspected or actual incidents of malpractice to the relevant AO immediately. Failing to report malpractice is in itself malpractice and may result in sanctions being applied against the Centre or the Head of School. Malpractice may also be reported by candidates themselves, members of the public or Centre staff. The issues around whether reports can be interpreted as a protected disclosure in line with the Centre’s whistleblowing policy are not straightforward and will need to be assessed in the circumstances.

Q6. What steps are involved with the handling of malpractice complaints or allegations?

The matter will need to be dealt with in the following phases:

  • Allegation – to be reported to the AO immediately in line with their procedures;
  • AO’s response – this may require no further action to be taken or a full investigation by the Centre or the AO itself;
  • Investigation – usually carried out by the head of Centre;
  • Report – completed by the head of Centre and submitted to the AO;
  • Decision – a panel or committee appointed by the AO will provide an outcome in cases of alleged malpractice and decide whether a sanction should be applied;
  • Appeal  - each AO has its own appeals procedure.

Q7. What are the penalties likely to be for candidate malpractice?

The table of indicative sanctions grades offences according to the level of seriousness[1]. Sanctions and penalties include: a warning; loss of all marks for a section, a component or a unit (depending on the type of exam/assessment); disqualification from a unit, more than one unit or all units/whole qualification; disqualification from all qualifications taken in that series; or candidate debarral - a ban from entering one or more exams for a set period of time.

Q8. Who determines the sanction?

The sanction is usually determined by the AO in the first instance and this decision is communicated to the head of Centre as soon as possible. The head of Centre is responsible for communicating the decision to the individuals concerned and for passing on warnings or sanctions, where these are issued.

Q9. Are candidates able to re-sit an exam?

Unless a candidate is barred, there is usually the opportunity to re-take the element of the exam in the next exam series. However, candidates in England are not able to re-sit individual GCSE units and will have to re-take the whole subject. This usually means waiting a whole year to re-sit, although marks from controlled assessments are usually carried forward.

Q10. Are there also penalties for staff?

Yes – the staff sanctions tariff grid is also available online and provides guidance on the penalties for: improper assistance; maladministration; deception; security breach; failure to co-operate and reporting issues. Sanctions range from: a warning; training; special conditions; and suspension from involvement in exam administration.

Q11. How do you appeal a sanction or malpractice decision?

Usually appeals are made by the head of Centre to the AO on behalf of a candidate registered through the Centre or a member of Centre staff. Information on the process is generally provided by the AO at the relevant time. General guidance on the appeals process is available online[2].

Q12. Do issues of malpractice remain confidential?

The majority of malpractice cases do remain confidential between the Centre, the individual who engaged in the malpractice and the AO. However, “in cases of serious malpractice, where the threat to the integrity of the exam is such as to outweigh the duty of confidentiality, it may be necessary for information to be exchanged between: the regulators; other awarding bodies; and other centres where the malpractice may affect the delivery of an AO’s qualification”.

Q13. What reputation management issues should we be considering?

Where exam malpractice is widespread amongst candidates or carried out by Centre staff, the Centre may become the focus of media criticism.  In this situation, the public interest in publication may outweigh individual's privacy rights or confidentiality and Centre's should ensure that they are fully apprised of all relevant facts and in a position to respond to media enquiries or attention.  They should also be vigilant about threatened or actual media coverage so as to be in a position to challenge any inaccuracies or defamatory allegations, using regulatory and legal means where necessary.

Q14. How can a school defend itself against allegations of exam maladministration?

The malpractice of isolated individuals will not necessarily reflect poorly on a school unless it failed to take appropriate action or its processes were sufficiently lax to allow widespread malpractice. Schools should emphasise their good exam practices and speedy and appropriate responses to malpractice while rigorously challenging inaccurate or misleading reporting. It is advisable to take a pro-active approach to publicity so that you are ready to respond if the matter does find its way into the traditional or social media.

Q15. How can we police malpractice in our school?

Each Centre must have arrangements in place to prevent and investigate malpractice and maladministration. Some Centres may be set up to use CCTV during exams. If this is the case, you should consider whether your use of data captured on CCTV complies with the GDPR and the Data Protection Act 2018. A Data Protection Impact Assessment (DPIA) will be required  if you want to use CCTV to catch exam malpractice on camera and use it as evidence in the investigation process, in addition to the standard GDPR compliance measures.

Q16. Challenging exam results – what are schools entitled to request and have sight of?

Students are not entitled to copies of their exam scripts thanks to a statutory exemption in the Data Protection Act 2018, but they are entitled to a breakdown of their marks if that is available.  Examiners' comments on scripts are disclosable assuming that they don't identify the examiner.  The same applies to minutes recording discussion of borderline cases as long as the names of those who are involved in the discussion are redacted and they are not otherwise identifiable.

Q17. What other GDPR issues should Centres be aware of?

If exam scripts are marked electronically, for example, if the exam format is multiple choice, this is regarded as automated decision-making under the GDPR which gives the student additional rights, including the right to request that the result is confirmed by a human.

In light of these issues, we would advise schools to ensure that their policies and procedures for exam administration are up to date and distributed to those that need to be aware of them. If incidents do arise, these should be dealt with quickly and efficiently in line with these procedures.

[1] JCQ guidance ‘Suspected malpractice in exams and assessments – policies and procedures’, 1 September 2018 to 31 August 2019 – to be considered in addition to guidance from the specific AO.

[2] JCQ Guidance: “A guide to the awarding bodies’ appeals processes”.

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