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Monday, 13 August, 2001, 15:58 GMT 16:58 UK
The diary of an exam marker
Teacher in class
Results have been sent out to schools
The Scottish Qualifications Authority depends on an army of markers to process millions of exam scripts.

They are usually teachers who do the job on top of their existing responsibilities.

Here BBC News Online Scotland presents the thoughts of one marker who witnessed the meltdown of the country's exam system in 2000.

I have marked Standard Grade Geography papers for six years and the last two years have given me major cause for concern.

The first four years went very smoothly, but this has not been the case since the Scottish Exam Board merged with Scotvec to form the Scottish Qualifications Authority.

Many of my colleagues - some who have more experience of marking than me - share my worries.

Before outlining my experiences of marking this year, it is important to point out that many classroom teachers remain bitter and cynical about last year's results.

It is easy to spot markers as they usually have glazed, distant expressions on their faces.

The problems they caused for pupils, parents and teachers were well-documented.

The area of most concern was probably the many inconsistencies in results: pupils who were not expected to do well did much better than would have been reasonably expected by their teachers, and well able pupils were not getting the same results they had gained in prelim exams.

This year an invitation to mark was sent out earlier than usual, along with a letter of apology for the errors made in the previous session - and the long delay in payment of markers' fees. This suggested that, perhaps, they were going to get it right this time around.

I received notification that the markers' meeting was to be held in the usual venue in Glasgow, and that the deadline for the completion of marking had been cut back by a week compared to previous years.

Markers' guidelines

Five days before the markers' meeting the venue was changed from Glasgow to Edinburgh.

Before the meeting, markers are normally sent three specimen scripts for each certificate level they are marking.

These are to be marked in accordance with the markers' guidelines, prior to the meeting. At the meeting they are discussed and the examiners outline where marks were awarded.

Many people did not receive the specimens until they arrived at the markers' meeting itself, which meant they had no time to assess them in advance of hearing from the examiners.

This is an important point as markers' guidelines are often amended during discussion with the examiners.

Pupil in exam
It takes an hour to mark eight scripts
The Edinburgh venue was an old grain market where it was difficult to hear what was being said by both examiners and markers. There also seemed to be fewer markers than last session.

Another contentious point this year was how the SQA verified teachers' experience.

I was left wondering if it would wait until an issue arose and then make checks. I know of two cases where teachers without the relevant experience have been asked to mark.

However, in the SQA's defence it does find it difficult to recruit enough markers, so it will inevitably be less stringent when it comes to teaching experience in some subjects.

On your initial invitation to mark you are asked if you would be willing to mark extra scripts, which I agreed to do.

Normally the scripts are sent out to you and you have additional time to mark them.

The job itself is very tedious, as you have to ensure your marking is consistent and accurate

This year the SQA sent letters to headteachers requesting that those markers who had volunteered for more be released from normal classroom duties for eight days. For that the school would receive payment for cover.

My headmaster did not agree to this because there was a request for another three teachers in the school to be released.

In some schools the money wasn't used to buy in additional cover and existing teachers were asked to cover their colleagues' classes. This is a situation which has caused some bad feeling.

I managed to finish my initial marking ahead of schedule and phoned the SQA to volunteer to do a maximum of 100 more in my own time - out of school - at the normal marker's rate, if they could extend the deadline by a few more days. I was told there was no need for this as yet.

Four days before the original deadline 240 scripts were delivered, with a letter saying that my headmaster had agreed to release me for eight days to mark them.

Pay day

I phoned and informed them that my headmaster had not, in fact, agreed to this, but that I would mark what I could for the deadline.

Pay day then came and went without any money.

Fearing a repeat of last year, when I received full payment 10 weeks late, I contacted the EIS to ask them to do something about it.

I got paid the following week, but it did not include anything for my additional marking. For that I had to wait another week.

The process of marking involves a great deal of time.

Pupils will receive certificates on Tuesday
My initial script allocation was 240. It takes about an hour to mark eight when you take into account the administration involved in totalling marks and recording them on the scripts and relevant forms.

That works out at approximately 30 hours to complete the entire allocation of marking.

It may not sound like a lot, but this is in addition to your normal teaching workload of five days a week.

The job itself is very tedious, as you have to ensure your marking is consistent and accurate.

During the marking period you discover what social isolation feels like as you mark into the early hours, because this is the only time you can get peace and quiet to do it if you have a family.

'Mind numbing'

It is easy to spot markers as they usually have glazed, distant expressions on their faces.

After all this you ask yourself why you bother as many colleagues laugh when you admit to being a marker.

Comments like "mind numbing", "it takes hours and hours", "my wife and kids thought we were having a trial separation", "boring as hell", and "garbage money" are common when you mention exam marking.

So why do I continue to do it? The main reasons are:

  • The exams need to be marked or pupils don't get their results

  • I can use the information I get from markers' meetings and the experience - sometimes tortured - of reading what pupils write in exams in preparing my own pupils for their exams

  • I'm nosey when it comes to the SQA and think that I'll find out more if I work for them

  • The lump sum I eventually get paid comes in handy for the summer holidays.


Changes imposed

Last year's problems




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13 Aug 01 | Scotland
12 Aug 01 | Scotland
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