Fake exam paper scammers thrive on desperation

By Pepe Di’Iasio
General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

For pupils tempted to cheat by buying “exam papers” online it is surely a lose-lose situation.

The chances are that they are being scammed and they will end up losing their money on a fake paper. In the unlikely event that it is the real thing – a leaked exam paper that is actually genuine – they risk being disqualified. 

In fact, as Ofqual reminded us this week, sanctions can still apply even if the papers turn out to be fake – meaning the errant student could both be conned out of their money and also be disqualified. A double whammy which cannot possibly be worth the risk.

So, why would any pupil do it?

It could be laziness, naivety, or a worrying inclination towards dishonesty. Many people will hold that view. But I’d suggest there is another factor in the mix – desperation.

And the reason for this is the immense pressure that the exam system places upon young people.

GCSE reforms and the focus on the English Baccalaureate have driven a highly academic curriculum culminating in a large number of terminal exams that are heavy on memorisation. It is a joyless business.

The consequences of doing less well are forbidding. Those falling short of a Grade 4 in English and maths face a grinding cycle of resits forced upon post-16 settings by the government’s funding conditions.

The pressure that students then feel to achieve the right grades to go to university is also intense.

Of course, exams have never been easy on young people. We’ll all remember that from our own school days. But over the past 14 years the government has pulled a series of levers which have made the contemporary exam season into a brutal ordeal.

I know the huge amount of work that goes on in schools and colleges to mitigate the impact of exam pressure, with subject teachers and pastoral teams providing superb support to distressed students.

But what a sorry situation it is that this is so often necessary. 

And the message that this focus on exam results sends out to young people is not at all healthy – it is that what really matters in education is grades, not learning and knowledge and how this opens up new vistas and opportunities. Just grades.

Fixing this isn’t actually that difficult and – whatever the government thinks – it really is possible to do this without compromising ‘rigour’.

ASCL’s Blueprint for a Fairer Education System proposes a reduction in the burden of assessment at 16. 

This could include the reintroduction of more ongoing assessment over the course of a qualification. And the high-stress, high-stakes cliff edge of GCSE English and maths could be addressed through having a new style of qualification – a ‘certificate of proficiency’ in literacy and numeracy.  This would be taken by all students when they are ready (like a driving test or a musical instrument exam), grounded in real-world applications and criterion-referenced on the basis of pre-determined criteria and standards.

Any change in curriculum and assessment would of course have to be reflected in reform of the accountability system of performance tables and inspections.

This could be achieved by the introduction of a ‘report card’ focusing on a broader range of information beyond exam and test results, used as the key accountability mechanism and replacing single-phrase judgements in inspections. As well as pupil outcomes, it might include, for example, information on curriculum provision, staff development and inclusion.

Care would have to be taken to ensure that any new system did not create a new set of problems – the last thing we need is something else that ends up being used to beat schools over the head. But through thoughtful and collaborative development it is eminently doable. 

Pie in the sky? In fact, the introduction of a report card has made its way into Labour policy and the party is also committed to an independent curriculum and assessment review. It is a golden opportunity to re-balance what we teach children and how we assess them to make sure that learning – rather than exam grades – is the point of education.

I don’t know that we’ll ever stop the scammers who sell fake exam papers online, but we can certainly have a good go at making sure young people are not so desperate that they fall for this con. And we’ll make learning a more enjoyable experience for us all in the process.

 Pepe Di’Iasio is ASCL General Secretary. 
Posted: 10/05/2024 08:58:00