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Mobile phones in exams: behind the malpractice stats

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: A levels and GCSEs

Penalties issued to GCSE and A level students bringing mobile phones into the exam hall increased by 22% in 2018 compared with 2017.

Yet we know that Exams Officers use a range of ways to tell students about this important rule and that breaking it could lose them marks or even stop them certificating in that qualification. So why do students still do it?

Why risk it?

The answer, from research we commissioned, is that students simply don’t wish to be without their mobile phones. They are likely to be the most expensive possession of many students and they are concerned about loss or damage. We have also spoken to many Exams Officers (who are integral to making the exam system run smoothly every year) who say that most students don’t intend to use their phones to cheat. Rather, mobiles have become such a fundamental part of modern life that students do not wish to be without them, even for a few hours. Here are some examples of what Exams Officers have told us: 

“It is such a normal part of their life they feel bereft and some fear it may be stolen if left outside, but the message from us is clear.”

“It is true I think that most students who do bring their phones into the exam room have no intention of using them to cheat or actually switching them on. It is almost like a comfort blanket and they feel anxious when apart from their phones.”

“My experience when liaising with the students who are caught with a phone is that they did not intend to cheat. It is either accidental or they just don't think it's an issue because they never intended to use it. They will often justify it by telling me that it wasn't switched on.”

Four piles of GCSE maths exam papers on a desk in an empty exam hall

Still malpractice

A common theme evident in Exams Officers’ views was that students cannot understand how they could be ‘caught’ if they are not actually using their phones. They do not realise that the simple act of having a mobile on them while taking an exam is a breach of the rules and therefore malpractice, which must be reported to the exam board:

“All the ones I've caught over the years have said they forgot it was in their pocket. They are so used to having a mobile phone, they either forget it's there or don’t think it will matter.”

The rule is very clear, mobile phones are not allowed in exam halls, regardless of how much battery they have left, if they are in aeroplane mode, switched off or otherwise. The consequences are also clear: marks were lost in 900 cases in 2018, and a loss of aggregation or certification opportunity occurred on 130 occasions.

What can be done?

Exams Officers in schools and colleges and exam boards are working hard to communicate the realities of rule breaches to candidates and identifying ways of addressing any concerns they might have. We hear that some of the most successful methods for keeping phones away from exams are often those recognising the value of them, such as bag and ticket systems to keep them safe.

Clearly those who are best placed to impact on students’ fortunes in this area are the students themselves. So, if you’re taking exams this summer, please don’t be tempted to take your mobile phone into the exam hall. If you have any concerns about your mobile, please talk to your Exams Officer and they will be pleased to help.

And if you are a student or Exams Officer and want more information, the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) released this video last year and has posters schools and colleges can use.


If you would like to talk to Ofqual about any of the issues raised in this blog, please contact us at

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  1. Comment by Wilson Kemp posted on

    A few well publicised cases of candidates having all their results cancelled for this infringement would be of great help. No names, but details eg girl, aged 16 from Woking, expected to get 8 grade 9 GCSEs, but got ZERO as she was caught with a mobile phone in her last examination; all results were forfeited.

    It is no good hand-wringing about the problem which has got worse by 22%, and then not doing anything about it. No more excuses.

  2. Comment by Joy Rimell posted on

    Interesting situation happened in Mocks in February when a phone went off in the hall. We followed the procedure that we would have done for the real thing, and only then did it finally hit home with the rest of year 11 that this was a serious situation despite all the talks, poster, reminders etc. that we had given.

    The student affected was mortified, but in a way it was a good lesson to everyone. The effect has been amazing and shows that we can tell young people something important until we are blue in the face but they don't necessarily get it until they experience it!

  3. Comment by devon guffick posted on

    so lets say a student brings there phone into an exam completely by accident. they realise whilst the test has started. if they tell the exam officer do they still get reported?

    • Replies to devon guffick>

      Comment by Hannah Bradley posted on

      Hi Devon, the breach of security would be reported to the exam board but the penalty for the student would depend on a range of factors. If the student did not alert the exams officer and the phone was discovered later in the exam, or made any notification alerts, the penalty would likely be more severe than if the student handed the phone in immediately upon discovery. It is very important that students check that their mobile phones and smart watches are kept out of exams so that such a situation doesn't arise.

  4. Comment by Mad parent posted on

    What about the exam invigilators and examination officers phones going of , two exams my son has sat this week their phones were going off constantly. I have reported this to wjec which just made a note of it I had to call the school and report it and hope that they have acted upon the disgraceful practice that disrupts the exam the students train of thought and may have affected their overall exam results.

  5. Comment by Sophia posted on

    I’m worried about my son. He handed his phone in before the exam but forgot to turn it off. Towards the end of the exam, he got a ping from a text message I sent him?. I feel awful! They’ve had to report it even though he didn’t have his phone on him. Does anyone know what the penalty could be? He is absolutely devastated! Normally a very organised and child.

    • Replies to Sophia>

      Comment by Ian Dexter posted on

      The exams officer at your son's school will be able to let you know more about this - see if you can arrange an appointment to speak to them. They will be quite busy at the moment with all of the exams taking place, but they will be familiar with all of the detail around these kinds of issues.

  6. Comment by Sophia posted on

    Thank you Ian I will do that. I just read the exam rules and it states that mobile phones have to be removed from the exam hall. I just spoke to a friend of mine and her child’s school labels them, collects them, and takes them out of the hall. My sons school collects them and leaves them in the front of the hall.

  7. Comment by Paul Simpson posted on

    What would happen if a student brings their phone into an exam completely by accident and doesn't realise until the end of the exam. The exam invigilator is satisfied that the phone was not used at all by the student during the exam.

    • Replies to Paul Simpson>

      Comment by Ian Dexter posted on

      Thanks for your comment. The Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) malpractice policies and procedures are very clear on mobile phones in an exam hall - on p. 36 they state that mobile phones constitute unauthorised material and therefore bringing them into an exam is malpractice.

  8. Comment by Mary Lynn Macdonald posted on

    Do individual schools have independent discretion to keep students bags, with students' mobile phones inside them, inside the examination room during GCSE or A level exams?
    Thank you.

  9. Comment by Emmanuel posted on

    Hi so my phone fell out my pocket during an exam and so I left it for the invigilator to take it but she saw it was off completely and said they did report it and stated that it was off would this still affect me? Will I lose my exam result? I also wrote a letter explaining what happened.

    • Replies to Emmanuel>

      Comment by Ian Dexter posted on

      Hi Emmanuel - try and speak to one of your teachers about what happened, as well the exams officer at your school or college. They should be able to give you some more information about this.

      • Replies to Ian Dexter>

        Comment by Emmanuel posted on

        OK but can I ask. Is there ever a chance the examiners are nice and let people off when things like this happen?

        • Replies to Emmanuel>

          Comment by Ian Dexter posted on

          Hi Emmanuel - see what your teachers say: this may well have happened to someone else before. They should know what to do.