The Importance of exam markers | @ashleypearce84

AshleyAshley Pearce is a secondary school economics teacher in a comprehensive school just outside of Reading.  Last year he was elected as a councillor for the Labour party for an area in South Reading.  He is also a Reading FC fan and keen reader of educational literature.

I am sure we all believe in holistic education, good pastoral systems and children who enjoy going to school and go on to have a lifelong love of learning. However, I don’t ever remember seeing any of these things as a SMART target on any appraisal I have ever had. “75% or over of GCSE students to have enjoyed your lessons by the end of 2016”. No wait, the target was more like 75% of GCSE students to achieve an A*-C grade in 2016. So basically exams matter, matter above all else for us as teachers and for students’ futures. So if exams matter, the people that mark the exams really matter.

I want to start with some numbers. Fifty thousand teachers (assuming teachers, although I did undertake exam marking as a Teaching assistant, don’t tell the Daily Mail) mark 15 million exam papers a year. Last year, 400,000 exam marks were challenged, which was a 48% increase from the previous year. Of these, 77,000 were changed, an increase of 42% on the previous year. Remember exam boards charge for these, money is refunded if a mistake has been made but the charges can be high, especially as the fee is for essentially quality checking a company’s own work. AQA raised £4.7m from these fees last year with all exam boards raising £10m a year in total. Edexcel is owned by Pearson who are part owned by Rupert Murdoch, therefore parent and taxpayer money being funnelled into his pocket to ensure an exam board does its job properly doesn’t seem right.

At this time of year, I probably get an average of three emails a week from the different exam boards to advertise examiner vacancies. I was an examiner for about 4 or 5 exam series a few years back, both A level and GCSE. It is a dying art. OCR have recently said that they are looking abroad for examiners on some of their GCSE papers as there is such a shortage at home. Part of this is down to pay. Fees are paid per paper and can range from just over £2 per paper to around £10 per paper. Most analysis comes out with a figure of around £20 per hour for marking. Not terrible pay but not a great incentive either. There is also the perverse incentive to not take your time and to rush them. The more papers you mark in an hour, the more you can mark. Basically there is an incentive to rush the work and lower the quality. Educationalists rarely understand incentives.

Other issues are undoubtedly around workload. Teachers’ rising workloads are an open secret, so fitting in another job is very difficult. On average each exam marker marks around 300 papers per session, let’s say they take an average of 6 minutes per paper (I read that was an average somewhere), that is 1800 minutes or 30 hours of time. Again, like the pay this does not seem too burdensome. However, this time is squeezed into a small space of time, usually just over a month. If we are expecting time to be taken over these papers and for current teachers to undertake exam marking, you are looking at hours of time being dumped on already over worked teachers.

As well as the time and pay issues around examining, there are a few others. The abolishing of January exams has meant a pressure point of one time a year rather than being spread over two. The fracturing of schools and curriculum types has meant a wider variety of exams, which means a greater demand for different examiners. The examiner pool is getting smaller and on average older. Standardisation meetings in person are now less frequent, as are the marking of whole papers, with individual question marking now the norm. Many examiners are unfamiliar with this and do not like it. The paperwork, software downloads, and admin are also a factor in putting teachers off.

But examining is still a worthwhile exercise for a teacher. It helps our practice and improves students’ results. Schools and governments should be encouraging them. There are ways to do this.

Government and exam boards need to raise pay and find a different way than paying per paper. Training and standardisation should  be in person, the admin made easier and the timescale wider (bringing back January exams seems unlikely however). Schools could help by providing examiner training, encouraging staff to partake and allowing time off in the summer term to undertake marking. It is more worthwhile than almost any other form of CPD and is free to schools. Schools are now allocating part of their stretched budgets to exam re-marking, whilst definitely worthwhile this just seems wrong. A better plan on exam marking is needed.