Last month I wrote about the problem of teachers in exam halls. Several people were unhappy with me. Commentors argued I was deluded, or I must have taught at “Waterloo Road”. By contrast, my email and twitter private message box filled with people who agreed with the piece because they had seen these exact same things.
One of the most interesting emails came from an exam invigilator. When drafting the column I wanted to include a paragraph about the tricky position they are in, but it had to go due to space constraints. Thankfully, this email brilliantly explains the problem. The source said I could reproduce it here:
Have I seen teaching staff commit malpractice? Yes, a number of times. Have I reported it? Yes, but only to my exams officer, I thought that was as far as my duty went. I didn’t whistle-blow, even when I knew the school hadn’t taken any action. One time, I looked into raising a possible malpractice issue with JCQ – over students getting extra time – but gave up when I couldn’t find how to file an anonymous report about a general concern which covered several exam boards. (Fortunately JCQ have since tightened the rules so it shouldn’t happen again) I didn’t want to identify where I worked partly because I didn’t want to get my exams officer into trouble, partly because I’d have lost my job. Outside invigilators are casual staff, so we’re not protected by the whistle-blowing act. We’re supposed to be protected from “detriment” if we whistle-blow, but I don’t know what that means in practice. So I agree entirely with your comments on whistle-blowing. JCQ needs one central contact point, and should publish clear instructions on whistle-blowing in a prominent place in the ICE booklet. They should also include a question and answer about it in the back of the booklet, stressing invigilators’ responsibilities.
Having outside invigilators in charge and keeping teachers out of the exam room has mostly stopped the nightmare you describe happening, though it’s still a problem with exams on computers or art exams, when it’s hard to know if teachers could be doing more than just give technical support. But outside invigilators aren’t perfect either. I’ve seen numerous examples of invigilators getting things wrong which are never reported. I’ve made loads of mistakes myself, even though I’m highly conscientious. Usually I tell my exams officer, apologise, and try to make sure I get it right next time. Very occasionally I keep quiet, because I don’t want to get into trouble. I’d like to swear that I always tell my exams officer if a candidate has been given an actual advantage or disadvantage, rather than it being a technical breach of regulations with no harm done (like a JCQ notice not put up, a label left on a water bottle), but I’m not sure that’s 100% true. For example, I don’t know if it mattered that I provided Maths A level candidates with the wrong formula booklet a couple of years ago. They didn’t notice, and I didn’t tell anyone, but it was definitely maladministration.
I was told recently that in 2012, only 60 centre staff across 6000 centres had penalties imposed for malpractice, most of which were for minor offences. This sounds nice and low, but when I think of all the mistakes I make despite being a committed, knowledgeable invigilator, I conclude that most malpractice by centre staff probably goes unreported. JCQ rules state that failure to report malpractice is itself malpractice, but how often do exams officers actually report invigilators or teaching staff, unless there’s been deliberate cheating or a clear impact on candidates? If there’s no harm done, no one’s made a fuss, and the inspector isn’t going to pick it up, isn’t it better just to make sure it never happens again? Mind you, the inspector doesn’t check on the standard of invigilation, in my experience. I’ve never seen an invigilator questioned in all the years I’ve invigilated. Inspectors have focused on paperwork, paper security and access arrangements. They spend a minute in the exam room or looking in through the window, noting whether the desks are the right distance apart and that the notice board is correct, but as long as the invigilator isn’t asleep or on the phone, that box is ticked.