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“I’ve only caught three exam cheats in 25 years”

  • Author, Joanne MacAulay
  • Role, BBC Scotland News

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

So will the army of people who must ensure that logistics run smoothly and that no one cheats.

These are the invigilators who, for six weeks each spring, manage all aspects of Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) assessments in more than 500 schools and colleges.

Dr. Alex Laird is one of them.

The end of this year’s exams means the end of a quarter of a century of supporting students as they take their Highers and National 5s.

Legend, Dr. Alex Laird has to take his final turn in the exam room

Dr Laird is Head Supervisor at Portobello High School in Edinburgh, where her main focus for 25 years has been ensuring everything is in place for candidates to do their best.

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

“Candidates should just be able to come and take the exam without any excitement or fuss for them.”

She says many people assume the job involves walking up and down to make sure people aren’t cheating. But it also involves complex logistics.

And Dr Laird revealed that from her experience working with thousands of applicants, 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 indisputable incidents of intentional breaking of the rules.

“One of them was taking a modern languages ​​exam and I was struck by the fact that one candidate seemed to be looking up an awful lot of words (in a dictionary) starting with A or B. But it turned out that they had hidden notes in there.

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

She added that these incidents were very rare and that the overwhelming majority of candidates were polite, grateful and followed the rules.

Another major change and additional challenge is the increase in the number of candidates who need special conditions to take their exams, such as the use of IT, obtaining extra time or having a room separated.

Dr Laird said: “It’s no longer the idea that everyone walks into the school hall.

“This year we had 22 rooms available for Nat Five English.

“Many students also need their exam paper to be slightly different from the standard version – such as a particular font, enlarged print or colored paper.

“Some schools may need them to be in Braille, so you need to know exactly where that applicant is going to be because you need to provide them with the correct paper.”

Legend, Bill Webster to take over top job after Alex retires

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

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

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

“The role of a supervisor is to be there to try to prevent any problems and not to be the cause of them.”

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

She added: “You should move.”

“We are responsible for ensuring that candidates follow the rules, which means that invigilators must also follow the rules.”

Supervisors also have to deal with occasional medical incidents.

“We had a spectacular nosebleed a few years ago.

“A staff member had to sit down with gloves on and copy (the answers) because you couldn’t even put the paper in a photocopier.

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

“Sometimes someone is about to pass out from the heat and, I’m afraid, people go beyond just being nauseous and get sick.”

Legend, Dr. Laird has only encountered three real cases of cheating in 25 years

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

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

“One early May, in the middle of the mating season, two pigeons on the roof of the room were very visibly chatting, let’s say!

“It was impossible to ignore and every candidate in the room was very aware of it!”

Dr. Laird hands over his responsibilities to retired math professor Bill Webster, who has been supervising for seven years.

He believes that this role is essential to the smooth running of the examination process.

“We are a cog in a wheel and if one cog is missing, everything stops.

“I think you become more aware of the details of the job and the things you need to remember from year to year.

“I like to organize things. I’ve worked in education for a long, long time and this seems to be a continuation of that.”

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

Legend, Dr Laird has been monitoring students at Portobello High School for 25 years.

Jacqui Faulds, Head of Appointee Management at the SQA, said: “Proctors play a vital role in the delivery of the annual review regime.

“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 learners have the best possible opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding on exam day.”

As she retires, Dr. Laird now looks forward to seeing a little more daylight from late April to late May, but she will miss her colleagues and candidates.

She said: “There’s a satisfaction because you know you’re helping the next generation of young people to get to the point where they can go out into the world and continue to do what they want to do.

“Getting the results you want on an exam is a huge confidence boost.

“Probably the best thing about this job is knowing that people did it for us and you pay it forward.”