Van theft forces exam board to rewrite paper for 500,000 pupils

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The Independent Online

Half a million students sitting GCSEs next week with Britain's biggest exam board are having their question papers rewritten because a Parcelforce van delivering them to a school was stolen.

The AQA board says 1.5 million English and English literature exams, to be sat on 21 May and 5 June, will have to be reset and sent to schools at an estimated cost of £250,000. The van was snatched outside a post office while it was carrying the papers to a school in the West Midlands. Although the vehicle was recovered, packages containing the papers had been opened so the exam board decided the exams had been compromised.

AQA sets papers for 75 per cent of all GCSE English and English literature candidates. English is a compulsory subject at GCSE so "a massive number" of students in 3,000 schools and colleges have been affected, George Turnbull, a spokesman for the AQA, said.

The board insists that all schools will receive the replacement papers by 20 May and all exams will go ahead as scheduled. "As far as I'm aware this is the first time that anything of this magnitude has ever happened," Mr Turnbull said. "It is a massive exercise to prepare new papers."

Kathleen Tattersall, chief executive of AQA, said: "There is no room for compromise when the integrity of our examinations is threatened. We have taken decisive and prompt action to replace the suspect papers, and to inform schools and colleges of the action we are taking. We are grateful to them for the part they will play in ensuring all suspect papers are replaced and the integrity of the examinations is preserved."

Parcelforce has apologised to the board for the incident. A Parcelforce spokeswoman said the van had been stolen from outside a post office in Worcester on 1 May. "We are obviously very sorry and regret the theft of the exam papers and all the inconvenience it has caused. We are working with the police to investigate this crime. We carry more than 700,000 exam papers every year and cases like this are rare." The papers affected are English Literature (1121) on 21 May and English (1111) and Post-16 English (1112) on 5 June.

The theft highlights the risks built into the British exam system, which depends on hundreds of thousands of papers being posted around the country every year.

Ken Boston, chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the Government's watchdog, says the exams are "underpinned by a 19th-century cottage industry" where "24 million scripts move about the country at the whim of the Post Office".

Last month, the English system moved a step closer to computerised marking when the educational publisher Pearson took control of the Edexcel exam board.

The company has promised a multimillion-pound investment in computerised marking in a move towards online testing, which will reduce the need for papers to be posted."

Yesterday a QCA spokes-woman described the incident as a "serious theft", adding: "QCA are satisfied that the correct course of action was taken to safeguard the interests of students."