Safe and secure – running exams in a pandemic

On the 23rd March this year we closed the doors to our College buildings in Glasgow. With the spread of COVID-19 on the rise, the Scottish Government joined with the other administrations across the UK to put the country on lockdown. Offices and non-essential shops were closed, along with public spaces such as libraries, communal parks and playgrounds, and places of worship.

Safe and secure – running exams in a pandemic

Click here to visit our dedicated COVID-19 website section for advice and resources.

Click here to find out more about the benefits of being a being a member of our Faculty of Dental Surgery member and the specialist exams and education resources available to you.

Click here to find out more about the benefits of being a Physician member and the specialist exams and education resources available to you.

Click here to find out more about the benefits of being a Surgical member and the specialist exams and education resources available to you.

On the 23rd March this year we closed the doors to our College buildings in Glasgow. With the spread of COVID-19 on the rise, the Scottish Government joined with the other administrations across the UK to put the country on lockdown. Offices and non-essential shops were closed, along with public spaces such as libraries, communal parks and playgrounds, and places of worship.

While hospital staff prepared to deal with a surge in serious cases, College conferences, events and exams were all postponed to ensure that those working in the health service could focus on impact of the pandemic. Around 1,200 exam candidates from across the globe – physicians, surgeons and dentists – were impacted by these cancellations.

Now, six months on, our Education and Assessment team is aiming to get accredited career progression back on track by re-launching a safe and secure programme of education and exams to enable medical professionals to move to the next stage in their professional journey. Since the beginning of September we have begun to deliver both online and face-to-face, socially distant, COVID-secure exams. Delivered with our intercollegiate partners, the online exams include both written and clinical formats and have been used by candidates sitting MRCP, MRCS and ISFE exams.

Director of Education and Assessment Fiona Winter said:

“These are huge firsts for our College and involved absolutely everyone from the team, either on the front line, behind the scenes or assisting their colleagues by providing cover for other activities. Well done to everyone in the team. Over the coming weeks, the activity continues to build with more events and exams returning to delivery, albeit in a very different format.”

“Initially during the lockdown, we held out some hope that we would be able to get our programme of assessment and exams back up and running with minimal disruption, but it became clear very quickly that we’d need to pause our activities until it was safe to resume. Our job is to enable career progression for our membership and candidates, so this was a tough, but necessary, step for us to take.”

“It was simply impossible at that time to be able to bring candidates and examiners together in a single venue to conduct assessments as usual in a safe and secure way, so in order to relaunch our programme, we needed to begin at first principles.”

The team worked with others to review options for hosting exams online, and how in-person assessments could operate safely given the infection control measures which were now necessary. We wanted to be completely reassured that it was possible to replicate our high standards while delivering online assessments. After spending considerable time testing and evaluating a range of options, it’s clear that this is entirely possible with the technology at our disposal, and so this has created a truly significant turning point for our exams going forward where we have a significant re-balancing of written and clinical exams from offline to online.”

After a summer of planning, College exams restarted at the beginning of September. While the return of activity was a relief to many in the College and across the wider medical community, there were still many who had to be reassured about the new ways of working. At a webinar for candidates and examiners for the intercollegiate Orthodontics Fellowship exam, which is to be held online, a range of questions were posed from what level of detail could be seen in online photographs, to the practicalities of typing up answers, rather than writing them out freehand. Ms Winter explained, “All the way through this process we’ve tried to be open and accountable to candidates about the changes we’re making. Everyone has been individually emailed about any new arrangements, and we’ve also run webinars and online practice sessions where this has been possible. We believe that our systems and processes are robust, so this is designed to provide reassurance to everyone involved.”

Ms Winter explained, “All the way through this process we’ve tried to be open and accountable to candidates about the changes we’re making. Everyone has been individually emailed about any new arrangements, and we’ve also run webinars and online practice sessions where this has been possible. We believe that our systems and processes are robust, so this is designed to provide reassurance to everyone involved.”

“As the UK’s only multidisciplinary royal medical college, we have a far wider scope of assessment activities than our sister colleges. Rather than working in a single area, we operate exams in seven different intercollegiate arenas across all our five faculties. While this meant that our work to postpone and reschedule our activities in the spring and summer was complex and time-consuming for our team, we’ve been able to turn this to our advantage in planning for the future. Our unique overview of the work in this field has allowed us to quickly identify best practice and implement this across the College, and this will have huge positive benefits for candidates and examiners in the future as our work progresses.”

This development of online activity has also presented opportunities to connect more closely with other Royal Colleges through the Academy of Royal Medical Colleges and to forge new relationships with counterparts at other Royal Colleges, both in the UK and Overseas.

College staff are adapting quickly to the new delivery mechanisms. Deputy Head of Assessment Kirsty Fleming has been leading much of the work around how we will deliver our exams in this new environment. “We will be using a number of online assessment providers across our intercollegiate partnerships to deliver both written and clinical exams. As a College, we have acted as the lead procurement partner for three sets of exams that we deliver and will be working with a single software provider and at least two separate remote proctoring companies. Training for staff, examiners and invigilators on these systems has been taking place for the past couple of months, and we’ve been very impressed with the feedback so far.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed our society, and the provision of healthcare, in the space of a short few months. Our programme of exams has been equally affected. Despite this, our College remains committed to maintaining the highest standards in patient care. With this in mind, Fiona Winter had a final word for our membership: “Despite the current challenging circumstances, our Fellows and Members remain at the heart of our College community. We know that by choosing to join our College you are expressing your personal and professional commitment to placing learning and development at the forefront of patient care. At this time, more than ever, we rely on the experience and expertise of our membership in order to continue to provide a cutting-edge assessments service.

“If any Member or Fellow would like to contribute to the development and delivery of these essential activities, from developing standards to delivering exams, please drop me a line and I’d be delighted to get you on board. We’re much stronger with you on board.” 


Back to all articles


We provide a daily update on the day’s top health news by WhatsApp. To subscribe, please add our number (+447458012663) to your contacts as “College Voice” and then send "NEWS" as a WhatsApp message to +447458012663 for a daily update for the news that matters to you.

Who we are

We are a worldwide community of inspiring health professionals working together to advance our profession and improve patient care.

Read more

What we do

Over the past year we’ve made great advances in professionalising our approach to engaging more effectively with government and the wider health sector.

Read more

What we stand for

Together we are demanding action to address workforce shortages and implement solutions to help reduce staff burnout.

Read more