Education Column: Pupils would be best advised to turn their phones off this exam season

Sheffield students sitting their A-levels and GCSEs have been shocked to discover that the exams boards are keeping a watchful eye on their social media accounts.

Thursday, 31st May 2018, 6:17 am

Schools in South Yorkshire have been among those contacted by exam chiefs, who have given names of candidates discussing test questions on the likes of Twitter and Facebook.

This has resulted in a warning in the headteacher’s office in most cases, but exam boards are quick to point out that social media action could add up to cheating and result in the student’s entry being disqualified.

It may seem too hard-hitting and smack of a Big Brother state, but there is a very serious message behind this.

Social media has irrevocably changed the landscape of exams, bringing together students sitting a common test who live in different corners of the country and have never met each other.

In many cases, Twitter is being used as a positive force in the run up to exams, being a platform to share revision materials, offer tips and give words of encouragement before putting pen to paper.

But as with anything involving the Internet, there are threats as well as opportunities. As soon as students leave the exam hall, they are able to get their phones back and, within minutes, are able to post comments on social media.

It may be about how they are feeling or how they believe they performed in the exam, but some threads may turn to specific questions that did – or did not – make an appearance on the paper.

And herein lies the problem, because not every candidate in the country may sit the exam at the same time.

The most likely scenario where this could lead to problems is when there is a clash of exams in the morning. One of the papers will have to be sat in the afternoon, and although the student should be monitored until the time of the later exam, there are differing levels of exam security in schools.

Even the teachers who have been teaching the kids their course for two years are not allowed to see the exam paper at the same time as those trying to score marks in the exam hall.

They have to wait at least 24 hours before they can see what questions are and if the exam is reasonable or excessively hard – it can be a long wait.

There are obvious pitfalls, then to somebody going on social media and mentioning how a question on a certain topic was difficult, or that it was unfair how an obvious question had been omitted.

It could, under some circumstances, give a ‘heads-up’ to somebody about to enter their own exam who had somehow managed to gain a cheeky peak on Twitter.

And, given this possibility, it’s not surprising the exam boards are monitoring social media for inappropriate comments that could give the game away.

But there are wider questions here about whether or not the likes of AQA and Edexcel have the right to do this.

There are clear guidelines about what constitutes cheating when students are sitting in their seats for the exam – any talking, passing notes or bringing revision materials in would clearly result in harsh and potential life-changing punishment. The exam board can cancel all a student’s exams in extreme circumstances.

But when a candidate has left the exam hall and gone home, are they still bound to silence? When the invigilator asks them to stop writing, collects their paper and sends them out of the room, is it not natural for students to discuss the exam and try to second guess their own performance?

A good many of the teachers are also blissfully unaware of the online restrictions, so how on Earth is this message expected to filter through?

Adding to the uncertainty is the realisation that information on the Internet could be incorrect, putting students on the wrong trail.

The best thing for students to do during the exam season is to turn off their phones. Remove the temptation of distractions and possible repercussions.