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Monday, 21 January, 2002, 17:56 GMT
Examiners knew about maths error
Amit (L) and Adam (R)
Sixth formers say they were distressed by the error
By BBC News Online's Gary Eason

Exam board Edexcel knew that one of its maths AS-level papers had a mistake in it but decided not to tell test centres.

BBC News Online has learnt that the error was noticed first at a school in Hong Kong, where candidates sat last Friday's Decision Mathematics (D1) paper eight hours ahead of those in the UK.

It is understood that the school alerted Edexcel, which received an e-mail sometime after 0800 in London.

The exam was due to be taken by about 2,500 students in 300 centres in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland at 1330 that afternoon.

The decision was taken not to try to tell exam centres, however.

Ministerial anger

Edexcel has promised candidates that they will be given special consideration and will not be disadvantaged because of any disruption to the exam.

Amit Bharath
Amit Bharath said his calculations kept going wrong
The Education Secretary, Estelle Morris, is said to be "furious" about the error.

She has asked the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) - as the regulatory body - to investigate.

"She is taking a personal interest in this," said a senior source.

The QCA in turn has demanded a response from Edexcel by the end of the day, which will be going straight to Ms Morris.

The QCA did not know that Edexcel had been warned about the error.

The error involved two diagrams, one on the question paper and one on the answer sheet, which had different figures on them.

Click here to see the error.

Nick Gault contacted BBC News Online from Hong Kong, where his father was posted on business.

"We do exactly the same exams as the schools in the UK do, at the same times as the exam boards set them," he said.


"As I'm sure you are aware, Hong Kong is eight hours ahead of the UK and so we found the problem eight hours before the majority of people were sitting the exam."

He was taking a geography paper, not maths, and feels his problem is being overlooked.

"As the maths candidates were asking the invigilators what they should do and the invigilators were conferring, the geography candidates were indirectly affected by this as it caused us a great deal of disruption," he said.

This was made worse when they had to listen to mathematical information being given out to the maths candidates.

'No problem'

An Edexcel spokeswoman said that its assessment experts had considered the situation once they were alerted to the problem early on Friday - their priority being to minimise stress to candidates.

"The diagram on the answer paper was correct and if the students read the question on the question paper, and used the diagram on the answer paper, then there wasn't a problem," she said.

She said that only "a handful" of centres had lodged complaints.


Two sixth formers who were affected say the disruption to their exam could cost them a university place.

At Allerton High School in Leeds, students Amit Bharath and Adam Sissman raised their concerns about the maths paper with their teachers, who contacted Edexcel.

Amit said the mistake had affected his concentration and he might miss the grades he needed to study medicine at university.

"The calculations I was doing I kept getting wrong and I did not know why," he said.

"First I thought that it was just basic arithmetic - but then, when I looked at it, the numbers had been written wrongly."

Adam said they both felt they could have done better on the paper, had it not been for the mistake.

It reveals a wider problem, however, that we have become immensely reliant on examinations

Head teachers' leader, John Dunford
"My friend had referred back to the question book and answer book, and had used a mixture of the correct and incorrect figures, thus wasting time," he said.

"When he was informed there was a problem by our examination officer, he re-did the question, again, wasting time.

"When I was told I lost my trail of thought, and was worrying about that question, and I had forgotten to go back to finish a previous question, and I didn't have time to correct the last question at the end.

"I'm sure other people taking this exam today were not informed of this problem, so most of the people taking this module would have had problems with this question, and consequently lost time and not finished all the questions, hence losing marks.

Penny Lewis
Head teacher Penny Lewis: "Very upset"
"I just feel annoyed that the exam board has so much money and so much time to correct these sorts of problem, yet they make such a stupid mistake on the answer booklets."

Their head teacher at Allerton High, Penny Lewis, said she was very upset.

"The two students sitting the exam were very distressed - they're two of our most able mathematicians.

"Amit couldn't do part E of the question and he's a perfectionist and realised there was a mistake.

"We're concerned now that it will affect their final grade and we trust that Edexcel will act swiftly," she added.

David Dunn
Head teacher David Dunn demanded a re-sit
The headmaster of Yarm School, near Stockton-on-Tees, said he contacted Edexcel during the exam after his pupils also spotted "the grave error in the paper, which rendered the exam a farce".

Mr Dunn said: "They gave us new instructions to announce during the exam, which we did."

But he added: "They also turned out to be wrong.

"Imagine the effect on the candidates when we had to stop the exam twice to make announcements about the board's errors, which still made no sense," he said.

This is a dreadful state of affairs

Paul Sokoloff, Edexcel

Edexcel said it was "working closely" with the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.

"Special consideration procedures will be applied to all students who took this paper," it said.

"We will ensure that no students' grades will be affected."

Re-sit unlikely

Asked whether all candidates who took the exam would have to re-sit it, its qualifications director, Paul Sokoloff, said: "I would doubt that that would be necessary.

Paul Sokoloff
Paul Sokoloff: Assurance
"When a problem's restricted to one question we can normally isolate the answer to that question and make sure they don't disadvantage the students.

"It's a well-established procedure and to get the whole cohort to re-sit the exam would I think be an unnecessary over-reaction."

The general secretary of the Secondary Heads' Association, John Dunford, said the pupils should be allowed to re-sit.

"The only way you could avoid having a re-sit is if you simply do not count that module and you count the exam marks on another module," said Mr Dunford.

"It reveals a wider problem, however, that we have become immensely reliant on examinations," he said.

"The whole system has become intensely pressurised and I think that pressure is on the exam boards as well as students."

The mistakes: At the top, the diagram used in the question paper. Below it, the one used on the answer sheet - with two different figures.

erroneous diagrams

Back to main text

The BBC's Mike Baker
"This is not the first time there has been serious complaints"
Amit Bharath, pupil
"The calculations I was doing I kept getting wrong and I did not know why"
John Dunford, Secondary Heads Association
"There's really no margin for error"
See also:

22 Jan 02 | Education
Other errors hit accident-prone board
18 Dec 01 | Education
More time for tough maths exam
18 Dec 01 | Education
Exams repeated mock questions
22 Mar 01 | Education
Students given wrong test results
04 Oct 01 | Education
Exam board chief resigns
12 Sep 01 | Education
AS-levels 'to be sat in half a day'
24 Aug 01 | Education
Pupils still await results
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