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IT issues, cheating and uninformed invigilators: pharmacist trainees detail GPhC exam chaos

As new reports of mishaps occurring at the General Pharmaceutical Council’s (GPhC) registration assessment held on June 29 emerge daily, trainee pharmacists tell C+D about their experiences sitting the exam

The GPhC’s June 2022 registration assessment has not been smooth sailing, to say the least.

Initial suggestions of obstacles to the road emerged in May, when the regulator had to temporarily take down its booking portal to address issues experienced by trainees trying to secure a spot for the June sitting.

As the actual day of the registration assessment progressed, reports of students waiting hours to sit their exams gradually populated Twitter, with some only able to begin their paper at 6pm that evening

The GPhC stated last week that while the “majority” of the 2,700 candidates who sat the exam faced no issues, candidates at five test centres in England were faced with IT or technical problems, with a test centre in Nottingham bearing the brunt of these.

Since then, several pharmacist trainees have contacted C+D, detailing their experiences while sitting the exam. While some confirmed they met technical difficulties on the day, they cited graver concerns around cheating, inappropriate exam environments and the toll the exam had taken on their mental health.

“The whole thing seems like a joke,” one trainee told C+D under the condition of anonymity.

The GPhC has told C+D that it wants to “hear the views of candidates who sat the last registration assessment” and has emailed all candidates the link to a survey, which they can use to share their feedback.And it also addressed some of the claims in a statement released yesterday.

Below are just some of the concerns that trainees have shared with C+D.

 

Glitchy computers

 

A pharmacist trainee who took the assessment in the north-east of England told C+D their “computer crashed towards the end of the first exam”.

As it was the invigilators’ “first time using that software”, the trainee felt they did not have adequate knowledge to deal with the issue.

“I'm unsure as to what else they could have done other than restart the computer,” they explained.

The trainee “had no proper follow up of the technical incident” and invigilators failed to provide them with “an incident code […] to fill in an incident report”, simply telling them: "Yeah, it's saved," the trainee claimed.

“I feel I may not have performed as well in the second [paper] worrying about what other technical errors may occur,” the trainee told C+D.

A similar incident was reported to C+D by another pharmacist trainee, who said their exam “failed to submit” once they had completed it.

Even now, the student does “not know whether or not [their] exam was submitted, as the invigilators failed to support [them] when the incident occurred”, they told C+D.

Though Astrid Bueno – a trainee would went to the Royal National Hotel in London for her assessment – did not experience technical issues as severe, she told C+D that “the software used was bad quality [and] it took time to load”, not ideal during an exam where “every second counts”.

A candidate taking their exam at the same location said their computer “would lag and take a long time to close the window”.

 

Calculators and “clueless” invigilators

 

Issues with invigilators’ lack of knowledge around the exam cropped up again in reports that some students were able to bring their calculators into the exam room while sitting the second paper, which several students imparted to C+D.

One student said that “invigilators seemed to not be aware that calculators were not allowed”.

“More than two questions in the June 2022 paper [would have been] significantly easier if a calculator was available,” a pharmacist trainee who sat their exam in Wembley, north-west London, told C+D.

Ms Bueno said invigilators only checked candidates' IDs once before the exam, but students were “free to roam around the hotel” before entering the hall, she claimed.

“So, actually, anybody could have swapped with me and sat the exam for me,” she told C+D.

Read the GPhC’s full response to these claims: Sitting the registration assessment in June 2022

 

Did exam delays lead to cheating?

   

Several pharmacist trainees contacting C+D also claimed that some students taking their exams later in the day due to delays were able to obtain answers to questions from those who had already sat it.

A trainee who took their exam at the Royal National Hotel in London felt these students were given “an unfair advantage as to what came up in the paper”.

“And those very same students are being rewarded with a 'free attempt' and/or provisional register,” they pointed out.

C+D has seen screenshots of messages between students from June 29, which appear to show them exchanging answers. The source that shared these with C+D confirmed that the conversation referred to questions in last week’s papers.

A GPhC spokesperson told C+D today (July 6) that the regulator is “in the process of investigating any evidence of cheating by individual candidates that has been submitted to us”.

Read the GPhC’s full response to these claims: Sitting the registration assessment in June 2022

 

Unfavourable writing conditions 

 

A trainee taking their exam in the north-east of England told C+D that candidates were “sat very close to each other” in a “claustrophobic” room. Their positioning made it “extremely easy” for candidates to look over at each other’s screens, they said.

Another candidate – who took the assessment at the Royal National Hotel – said they “had to share one table with a peer” who “kept whispering, kicking and moving the table”, meaning the candidate had to hold their computer “so it [wouldn’t] fall off”.

The lights in the room were so bright they could “barely see the screen” of their computer, the candidate added.

Trainees taking the exam in that location also did not have “anywhere to sit” during their breaks taking the exam, the candidate said, as “most tables were reserved for hotel guests”.

Read the GPhC’s response to these claims: Sitting the registration assessment in June 2022

 

A difficult exam

 

C+D received numerous reports from students that they were unprepared for the difficulty of the exam.

One trainee said they found the calculation questions in the second paper “extremely long winded, far too wordy and impossible to do in three minutes or less”.

“Every single question in both papers […] felt like reading an essay,” they continued. “How is it fair to provide such long questions in the time limit given?”

Another trainee said: “The calculations paper was the most difficult set of 40 questions [they’d] ever done and the clinical paper didn't really reflect the framework at all.” 

When approached about students’ concerns over the difficulty of the exam, a GPhC spokesperson directed C+D to a page on its website about the June 2022 registration assessment.

The GPhC wrote that its board of assessors “follows a blueprint” in putting together the exam papers, which is “the same for all papers and is always followed”.

“All questions are linked to the registration assessment framework without exception,” the regulator added.

 

Toll on mental health 

 

Trainee pharmacists contacting C+D in the aftermath of the exam revealed it had taken a heavy toll on their mental health. Some even said they had experienced suicidal thoughts.

One trainee was so stressed following the exam they had to leave work early on one occasion.

“Every day I'm filled with anxiety waiting for what may happen.”

Another said they felt they had “wasted the last three years of [their] life, [having] prioritised the exam over so much, for nothing”.

A third trainee pointed out that for some people, this tumultuous exam sitting “was their third and final attempt”.

“Students were in tears after leaving that horrendous exam,” they claimed.

“[The GPhC] directed us to a mental health wellbeing helpline over the weekend, even though the helpline is closed on the weekend,” the trainee stated.

“People don't know what to do [or] who to talk to.”

Pharmacist Support – a charity providing support services to pharmacists and pharmacy students – told C+D they had not yet “experienced a huge number of enquiries”, but had “seen a big increase in people coming to [their] website for assessment related information over the past week”.

These saw a 35% increase, a spokesperson from the charity said, while visits to its counselling and peer support pages had grown by 163%.

 

Lack of trust in the GPhC

 

One candidate said they would have chosen “a completely different career” had they known before studying pharmacy “what the pre-reg exam entailed”.

“It's really not worth it,” they stated.

The GPhC has given candidates “who feel that their performance was significantly affected during their sitting” the option to nullify their sitting by July 11.

In a statement released yesterday (July 5), the regulator also gave students the option to appeal their sitting once they receive their results.

“We are advising candidates who feel they were significantly affected by a procedural issue relating to how the assessment was held, such as a delay or other technical issue, to wait for their results and then appeal, if they were unsuccessful in this sitting,” it said.

 

The GPhC’s response

 

Aside from outlining the options candidates have, the GPhC said it was “continuing to carefully review and investigate the feedback provided by candidates who sat the assessment on June 29 ”.

“We are following up with BTL and [its] test centre providers on any reports of significant issues experienced by candidates (such as computers freezing while sitting a paper and allegations of cheating by some candidates) which will be thoroughly investigated,” the regulator continued.

It said it already “responded to the main issues being raised by candidates […] on [its] website and explained the actions we are taking in response”.

 

Pharmacist Support

 

The Pharmacist Support spokesperson urged trainees currently “struggling with any non-urgent wellbeing related issues to reach out for support”, as “dealing with and processing the stress and anxiety from this experience may come later”.

The charity has resources to support trainees post-assessment on its website and offers a peer support and counselling service.

The spokesperson told C+D that while the charity was “unable to provide around the clock emergency care”, team members direct “anyone seeking urgent mental health support to the Samaritans, their GP or A&E”.

“Once contact has been made, our team will work with an individual to understand the situation and assess the support services they may need.”

Services such a Listening Friend, counselling, addiction and wellbeing support “can all be accessed in the evening and at weekends”, the spokesperson said.

 

You can contact Pharmacist Support, the profession’s independent charity, between 9-5pm Monday to Friday if you’re struggling with mental health and need non-urgent wellbeing support. Call 0808 168 2233 or email [email protected]

Whatever you are going through, you don’t have to face it alone. Call Samaritans for free on 116 123, email [email protected] or visit www.samaritans.org for more information.

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