Loophole allows students to use laptops in exams

The Times, 16.05.15, teenagers at an independent school will use laptops to sit some GCSEs and A levels this year, after their head teacher figured out a loophole to excuse them from hours of handwritten examinations. HMC member Mark Steed, Principal of Berkhamsted School features. Peter Hamilton, Chair of HMC's Academic Policy Committee and headmaster of Haberdashers' Aske's Boys' School is also quoted.

The move could trigger a revolution in exams, speeding up the demise of the traditional test papers that are sat by about a million pupils each year.

Mark Steed, the headmaster of Berkhamsted School in Hertfordshire, said that while schools taught using 21st-century technology, they were forced to revert to outdated methods for exams.

Thirteen of his pupils have spent the past two years using only laptops in subjects such as English, history and religious studies, rather than taking handwritten notes. This means that exam boards must allow them to use laptops, Mr Steed said, as it is recognised as their “normal way of working”. Eight took exams this way last year, the first year the school gave pupils the opportunity to do so.

Until now, most schools have allowed only pupils with special needs to use technology in exams, complying with regulations laid down by the Joint Council of Qualifications, which represents exam boards.

However, a clause in its guidance says: “Centres [schools] are allowed to provide a word processor, with the spelling and grammar check/predictive text disabled, to a candidate where it is their normal way of working within the centre.”

Berkhamsted School plans to broaden the practice in the next few years and other independent schools could follow suit. It comes amid growing concerns about children being marked down for illegible handwriting in exams, as they are not used to writing at length.

Mr Steed said: “At present, new technologies are helping young people to learn better both in and out of the classroom, but then we transport them through time back to the 1930s to make them sit an examination. No wonder there is scepticism about the value of new technologies in education when the exam system is forcing us to use them with one hand tied behind our back.”

He said that tablet and app-based learning was beginning to transform education for pupils aged four to 14, but then schools got cold feet when it came to GCSEs and A levels.

“As long as the exam boards and universities require young people to sit formal examinations in rows, in silence and without access to technology as a point of reference, then their schooling will inevitably devote significant time and energy into training them to excel in those conditions,” Mr Steed said.

Peter Hamilton, the chairman of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference academic policy committee, said: “It could be a very interesting way of working in the future.”

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