Tuesday 14 June 2022

We Don't Need No Education? I think we do, and we also need exams.


After a gap of three years, I have in recent weeks been back doing my post-retirement job as an invigilator of GCSEs and A-Levels at the school where I taught for my entire working career.

It's nice to be back: a taste of the teaching vibe which I loved so much, but it's a strange and in many ways deadly boring way to spend a working day - pacing up and down a hall full of young people, trying to strike a balance between ensuring that they are actively supervised yet not disturbed. No squeaky shoes, no phone notifications, only whispered and strictly functional conversations with fellow invigilators, and nothing to do except watch the clock ticking along. For the candidates, a two hour exam flies by, whereas for the invigilators time crawls. However, it's been nice to see this (admittedly less than fun) piece of normality returning to school life.

Almost everyone is familiar with the strange and stressful routines of school exams, but if you haven't been directly or indirectly involved with them for a few years, you might well be startled by how much more complex and regulated they have become than was the case a generation or two ago.

Exam security and fairness of access have made the organisation and execution of exams into an incredibly demanding logistical exercise for all involved, and I thought it worth drawing attention to what goes on in schools of every type and size during these five weeks or so – as well as, on a more limited scale, at other times of the year. I hope that in doing so I can help to foster added respect and understanding for all involved in the process.

Let's start with the students. Well nearly all of us have been there and done that. We all have memories of sitting in those rows of desks, 1.5 metres apart, with the sun shining outside and hay fever season peaking such that everyone is either sneezing, being disturbed by others sneezing, or both. We remember the invigilators pacing up and down like prison guards – in the past they were familiar teachers, but these days they are more likely to be outsiders recruited just for this role. We remember the ticking clock, the aching hand, the annoying desk that wobbles, held steady by a folded piece of paper, the distant sound of a playground as exams cut across the school day and its breaks, the occasional disturbance caused by a delivery van or  a teacher outside the room forgetting it's exam time and shouting to a colleague.

And above all, we remember the panic as we leaf through the question paper and see the topic we were hoping wouldn't come up and did – or the silent “yesss” as the one we revised only yesterday pops up. And we remember the uniquely focussed chatter as we were released from the gloomy hall into the sunshine outside, all comparing reactions and hoping that even the bright kids would agree that “Number 7 was impossible”.

It's all so familiar to everyone over school age. However if you're over about 40 and not involved in a school you'd be amazed at what now has to be monitored and what is and isn't allowed. A photo id card must be displayed on each desk. All writing must be black. Pencil cases must be transparent. Mobile phones are banned from the room, as are watches of any kind. Drink bottles must be transparent  and have the label removed. Walls must be free of any written material which might help in any way. Toilet breaks are discouraged, but if taken must be accompanied by an invigilator as far as outside the toilet. A prolonged stay in the loo would render the candidate under suspicion of malpractice. All this in the name of fair play.

Secondly, spare a thought for the invigilators. As already mentioned, these days they are an army of people, often with an oblique connection to the school: my invigilator colleagues at present are a delightful crew: retirees like me from this and other schools; part-time non-teaching staff redeployed from their usual roles; off-duty school nurses; a semi-retired doctor; the adult son of a teacher earning a few extra pounds to supplement his student loan; or just friends of the exam officer who were persuaded to help out. All of us have had to undergo DBS checks and take online training for the invigilator role, and are required to follow all the rules listed above, whilst also presenting to the stressed out students an air of supportive, empathetic yet suitably strict supervision. Not an easy balance to strike!

Let's not forget the teachers! These days, they are not allowed anywhere near their own subject exam until it's finished, yet most are nearly as nervous as their pupils: “did I get it right when I suggested there would be a question about topic ‘x'?” “Was that twilight revision session last week helpful?” “Will the clever but lazy ones have crammed it all in at the last minute?” “Will the hard working ones who really struggle get the breaks they deserve with the questions we've practised?” Some confident and conscientious teachers want to see their pupils after the exam, but others may understandably hide in the staffroom.

And what about the markers? Only those who have done it know what a tough and poorly paid gig that is. Again, it's changed beyond recognition in the past decade or so. Markers are a hidden and highly qualified army of current and former teachers, stay-at-home parents, retirees, or ambitious newcomers to teaching seeking added insight into the assessment process. These days, virtually all exam papers are scanned (hence the compulsory black pen), digitised and marked using an online platform which helps markers to add up totals and, in many subjects, ensures that different questions are marked by different people. Markers' work can be, and is, remotely and anonymously sampled and standardised by team leaders and senior examiners. The proverbial “rogue examiner”, a mythical ogre created in peoples' minds to explain away a poor grade, does not in practice exist any more, even if s/he did ever exist. Marking requires sustained attention to the task in hand over many days and weeks. And it does not pay well: nobody is in it for the money alone.

I leave the best until last: examination officers:  in many ways the most put-upon, under-appreciated supermen and women in the whole process. Every school or college has them, sometimes combined with another role, sometimes not.

Back in the day, EO was a job often done by a teacher, either a senior figure as part of a managerial/leadership post or a junior as a deserving incremental point on the pay scale. These days, it's almost always a non-teaching post, one for which there is no formal qualification but which requires a list of qualities and competences only found in a few individuals. S/he must have strong admin and ICT skills, limitless patience, physical stamina, kindness, tact, firmness, adaptability, creativity, problem-solving skills, and anything else I've forgotten.

The challenges faced by EOs are many, varied and unpredictable. During exam season, they are often the first to arrive on site and the last to leave. Having already ahead of each day arranged rooming, invigilation, seating plans, secure storage and recording of the arrival of papers, they then have to fetch all that day's papers (often well into double figures  on any given day if a school does both GCSEs and A-Levels) and check, count and assign them to the correct room. All this must take place within a secure room, with the papers kept in double-locked filing cabinets protected by keys held in a separate safe. Papers must be checked off by a second pair of eyes, who must countersign for all papers, and once out of the safe, they must stay in the hands of the EO or an invigilator at all times until they get to the exam room. Only then can they be opened.

And it's not just a matter of sitting a whole cohort in one big hall, as was once the case. If you haven't recently been involved with school exams, you would perhaps be startled, reassured or even slightly jealous of the concessions and arrangements made to ensure a fair chance is given to all. Students with a variety of reasons for such a concession will be given the chance to sit their papers separately in a smaller room, including some who are granted 25% extra time (if they have a formally diagnosed SEN need such as dyslexia), and some who are allowed to work on a laptop (again with a formally diagnosed need). Any laptop used must be supplied by the school and have access blocked to anything other than basic offline word-processing.

Likewise students with certain medical or mental health conditions may also be allowed to take the exams in a smaller group or an individual room, and may be allowed rest breaks. This applies, for example, to students with Type One Diabetes who are permitted rest breaks to test their blood sugar and administer correction injections or pump dosages when required. The current (June 2022) Coronation Street storyline of a girl with Type One taking and cheating in her A-Levels failed to recognise this reality in order to make a good story.

All such concessions require exam officers to facilitate separate, quiet, secure rooms in already crowded school campuses, and to find separate invigilators. Packs of exam papers have to be opened under secure conditions then resealed in separate envelopes. And at any time, with no notice, exam boards can and do send inspectors to spot check that all such conditions are being fully met.

Another complication is where a student has clashing exam papers in the same session. When this happens, one paper must be taken out of the published time slot, and the candidate kept under constant supervision between the papers, to avoid him or her either hearing or divulging the content of a paper sat out of sequence. Again, a significant logistical challenge for the EO.

And the EO fields all the problems or hitches: if a student gets upset or disturbed during an exam, then the EO will deal with it. If a parent complains about any aspect of the exam, the EO gets the email or the call. And when results get published in August, s/he will oversee the logistics of distribution of those, and deal with the huge and growing burden of requests for re-marks.

And nobody thanks them, gives them cards, boxes of chocolates or bottles of wine, as happens for teachers at the end of term.

So yes, exams are back after Covid. Students are stressed, especially the hugely unfortunate Year 13 cohort of 2022, who are taking A-Levels having never had the practice of GCSEs. For all their weaknesses, exams do, by and large, deliver fair results, develop valuable transferrable life-skills and form an integral part of most advanced education systems. But I hope that this brief and personal insight has given those whose lives are only fleetingly touched by exams a sense of the many challenges that they pose, in addition to the burden on those who sit them.

We don't need no education” sang Pink Floyd's choir of North London schoolchildren in their iconic anti-school song, Another Brick in the Wall (Part Two) from 1979. Well actually they did need some education if they didn't recognise a double negative when they saw one. A glorious song nevertheless which will serve, suitably modified, as a good title to this post. We do indeed need an education, and exams are a necessary evil. Please, however, spare a thought for ALL involved in this colossal annual enterprise.


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