Exam chiefs turn to Bond-style gadgets to defeat the cheats

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The Independent Online

A battery of gadgets worthy of James Bond is being introduced by one of Britain's biggest exam boards to crack down on cheating in A-level and GCSE exams. It includes:

*Radio tagging all the bags of exam papers so exam bosses can tell from their headquarters whether they have been opened or moved before the day of the exam;

*Using a scanning device which can detect whether there are similarities in the responses of candidates to individual questions, which will alert markers to copying or plagiarism;

*Inserting letters which are invisible to the naked eye on papers, so checks can be made as to whether they have been photocopied. This is designed to prevent pupils seeing the papers before they sit them.

One measure considered by exam bosses was dropped, however, because it was considered unnecessary – putting all the papers in remotely lockable boxes which could be opened by a mobile phone on the day the pupils sat the exam.

The new gadgetry was trialled last year and incidents of cheating were dramatically reduced. This year, the methods are being introduced nationwide.

Jerry Jarvis, the managing director of the examination board, Edexcel, said there had been "zero incidents" of major cheating for the first time last year.

"We had the best year ever in terms of the amount of cheating," he said. "Eighty per cent of kids who cheat are caught – and that message got across."

Penalties can range from a reduction in marks to being barred from sitting exams for a lengthy period.

Mr Jarvis said he thought the majority of pupils "feel very strongly" about the immorality of cheating when they had worked very hard to do well honestly.

A spokeswoman for Edexcel added: "These measures helped to make 2007 a year with no major breaches of security.

"There were minor problems, such as some teachers opening the exam bags before the appointed time. Each problem is taken very seriously by Edexcel's com-pliance team, which found the vast majority of incidents were the result of administrative errors and not malpractice." In the past there have been incidents of exam papers being stolen and being offered on the "black market" before exams. Teachers have been accused of looking at papers and giving pupils hints about what is likely to feature in the exam.

"The biggest issue was not to catch the cheats," said Mr Jarvis. "It was to make students believe if they were cheating they would get caught – and that seems to have got across."

The scanning device designed to detect whether students have copied each other operates by "looking at a number of student responses and a large number of questions to see if a pattern emerges in the answers", explained Mr Jarvis.

The most common forms of cheating have been copying or using mobile phones.

The exam board is offering all exam centres access to a "gradometer" from 6am on the day results are announced. It shows results and by how much they have missed out on a higher grade. Edexcel believes it will help pupils decide whether it is worth appealing against a grade. Trialled to 115,000 students last year, it produced an increase in appeals, but the number of papers regraded went down. This year, the board estimates it will be available to 250,000 pupils.