‘I have only caught three exam fraudsters in 25 years’

  • Author, Joanne MacAulay
  • Role, BBC Scotland News

When the final exam of the 2024 Scottish Exam Diet – Gaelic Nat 5 listening – ends later, candidates, teachers and parents across the country will breathe a sigh of relief.

This also applies to the army of people who have to ensure that logistics run smoothly and that no one cheats.

They are the invigilators who carry out every aspect of the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) assessment in more than 500 schools and colleges for six weeks each spring.

Dr. Alex Laird is one of them.

The end of this year’s exams marks the end of a quarter of a century of supervising students as they sit their Highers and National 5s.

Image caption, Dr. Alex Laird will make her final walk through the examination room

Dr. Laird is head invigilator at Portobello High School in Edinburgh, where her main goal for 25 years has been to ensure everything is in order so that candidates can do their best.

“You need to have good organizational skills, attention to detail and it helps a lot if you have a very good memory,” she said.

“The candidates should be able to just come in and take the exam without any excitement or excitement for them.”

She says many people assume the job is a matter of marching up and down and making sure people don’t cheat. But there are also complex logistics involved.

And Dr Laird revealed that in her experience working with thousands of candidates, she can count on one hand the number of people she has caught cheating.

‘Special conditions’

She told BBC Scotland News: “There have only been three undisputed incidents where the rules have been deliberately broken.

‘During a modern languages ​​exam, I noticed that a candidate seemed to be looking up an awful lot of words [in a dictionary] starting with A or B. But it turned out that there were indeed notes inside.

“The most recent was a cell phone in someone’s pocket, which is clearly completely against the rules. Not only was it in his pocket, but it was turned on.”

She added that these incidents were very rare and that the vast majority of candidates were polite, grateful and adhered to the rules.

Another big change and additional challenge is the increase in the number of candidates requiring special conditions to take exams, such as using IT, being given extra time or having a separate room.

Dr. Laird said: “It is no longer the concept of everyone going into the school hall.

“This year we had 22 rooms on the way for Nat Five English.

“Many students also want their exam paper to differ slightly from the standard version, such as a certain font or an enlarged print, or colored paper.

“Some schools may want them to be in Braille. So you have to know exactly where that candidate is going to be because you have to get them the right paper.”

Image caption, Bill Webster will take on the top job after Alex retires

Dr. Laird also trains other invigilators and advises them on their responsibilities, even down to their shoes.

She said: ‘Squeaky shoes would have absolutely driven me crazy when I was a candidate.

“Similarly jingling coins or keys in their pockets is a no-no.

“The role of an invigilator is to be there to prevent any problems and not to cause them.”

Dr. Laird said it was wrong to stand or sit too close to a candidate.

She added, “You should exercise.

“We are responsible for ensuring that candidates adhere to the rules and that means that the invigilators must also adhere to the rules.”

Invigilators also occasionally have to deal with a medical incident.

“A few years ago we had a spectacular nosebleed.

“An employee had to sit and copy with gloves on [the answers]because you couldn’t even put the paper in a copier.

“It can be very difficult to get the temperature right in examination rooms.

“Sometimes someone almost faints from the heat and I worry that people are not just nauseous, but also sick.”

Image caption, Dr. Laird has only encountered three actual cases of cheating in the past 25 years

Noise can also be a distraction that needs to be addressed.

“You can mow the lawn in the summer or do some exercise outside.

“One early May, during the mating season, a pair of pigeons were chatting very clearly with each other on the roof of the hall, shall we say!

“It could not be ignored and all the candidates in the room were well aware of that!”

Dr. Laird hands over her responsibilities to retired math teacher Bill Webster, who has been a supervisor for seven years.

He believes that this role is crucial to ensure the exam process runs smoothly.

‘We are a cog in a wheel and if one cog is missing, the whole thing stops.

“I think you become more aware of the details of the work and the things you have to remember year after year.

“I like to organize things. I have worked in education for a long time and it seems like a continuation of that.”

He added: “At the end of May we are very happy that it is over and has gone well and hopefully that any issues have been resolved to the satisfaction of everyone involved.”

Image caption, Dr. Laird has been keeping an eye on the students of Portobello High School for 25 years

Jacqui Faulds, head of appointed management at the SQA, said: “Invigilators play a vital role in delivering the annual exam diet.

“Simply put, without their experience and contribution, exams in Scotland would not take place.

“We are indebted to colleagues like Alex and Bill, who give up their time every year to ensure students have the best possible opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding on exam day.”

As she heads into retirement, Dr. Laird is now looking forward to seeing some more daylight from late April to late May, but she will miss the colleagues and candidates.

She said: “It’s rewarding knowing you’re helping the next generation of young people get to the point where they can go out into the world and do whatever they want.

“Achieving the desired results on an exam is a huge boost for self-confidence.

“Probably the best thing about this job is knowing that people have done it for us and you’re paying for it.”

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