Exam watchdog 'unfair' extra time warning

Exam room One in 50 exam papers was allowed "special consideration" in marking this summer

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Some GCSE candidates may be receiving an unfair advantage in exams by getting extra time designed for students with special needs, says watchdog Ofqual.

"We are concerned that some centres have given extra time to candidates who are not disabled," it says.

Ofqual figures show more than 237,000 cases this summer where pupils had special "access arrangements".

This is usually given for a disability or medical condition, and can allow pupils 25% more time to do papers.

Figures from Ofqual also show a sharp increase in the number of exam centres facing written warnings or other penalties for malpractice - up from 56 last year to 130 for summer 2012.

Special help

Pupils who have some kind of special need - or face a particular disruption at the time of an exam - can be allowed extra help or have this taken into consideration by exam boards.

But the exam regulator, publishing its figures for this summer's exams in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, has voiced concern at the scale of requests - and wants exam boards to review how such help is allowed.

Start Quote

We are concerned that in some cases extra time is being given to candidates to help them improve their grades rather than to address a significant disadvantage”

End Quote Ofqual report

"We are concerned that in some cases extra time is being given to candidates to help them improve their grades rather than to address a significant disadvantage," says Ofqual's report.

The requests from schools for "access arrangements" have risen by 8% in two years.

The most common access arrangement request - for an extra 25% time - increased by 12% over two years.

There were also more than 11,000 cases of pupils being allowed bilingual dictionaries and an extra 25% of exam time.

An even higher number of exam papers were subject to "special considerations", where marking might be adjusted in recognition of exceptional circumstances, such as bereavement or temporary illness.

There were more than 341,000 approvals for such special considerations, lower than the previous year. These figures were for exam papers - as a single individual pupil might claim for special consideration across all their exams.

None the less, it meant that about one in 50 exam papers had such special considerations approved.

The maximum adjustment in the marking is allowed for pupils who have suffered the death of a close family member - but a lower and more common allowance is for those with a "minor illness on the day of the exam".

'Malpractice'

There were also figures on cheating.

Malpractice by pupils has fallen for the fourth successive year - with 2,550 penalties issued this summer, representing 0.02% of the total exam scripts.

The most typical way of cheating was bringing in a mobile phone or another electronic device, although this problem, in terms of penalties awarded, seems to have been reducing in recent years.

Exam malpractice by school staff has fallen to its lowest figure over the past five years - with 60 cases, mostly for "inappropriate assistance" to pupils.

But there has been a big increase in the number of schools and exam centres where penalties have been imposed - in circumstances where it has been the management of the exam process that has failed, rather than the actions of an individual member of staff.

This increase has involved concerns about question papers being opened early and a lack of appropriate invigilation, with a written warning the most common consequence.

But the figures show a wide variation between exam boards - with some imposing no penalties at all, while Edexcel has accounted for more than three-quarters of all this year's penalties.

A spokeswoman for Pearson, parent company of Edexcel, said the increase followed a change in the warning procedures.

"In 2012 we introduced a more rigorous warning process so that we can gain far more accurate data across centres on all incidents, both minor and major. This gives us a more complete picture and helps with our risk assessment process."

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