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Casualties of extra time;Opinion

Finger flexing is over for another year and the SCE invigilators are looking forward to the minimum wage, says Christine Oldfield.

The morning of May 27 dawned dull and fairly cold, and all over Scotland physical education teachers were warming up in preparation for several hours of vigorous exercise. Press, relax; press, relax; press, relax . . .

Little known and perhaps underrated, forefinger flexing as practised here in Scotland is an activity that demands absolute concentration and immaculate timing in addition to a high degree of mental as well as physical fitness. Levels of competence vary considerably. Less experienced participants concentrate on just one forefinger at a time, combining the "press, relax" sequence with a lateral arm swing. Proficient protagonists flex both forefingers in synchronised harmony.

Training is carefully geared to ensure peak fitness for the main (and indeed the only) event of the year - the Scottish Qualifications Authority Standard grade examinations in physical education. At each level a video of about one hour's duration is played to candidates who read questions and write answers during time gaps already included in the tape.

The videos for foundation, general and credit levels, of which candidates must offer two, are consecutive with a short break between each. The tape operator, typically a member of the physical education department, and an invigilator are present throughout and, barring mechanical malfunction or other mishap, can sit back and relax without need for any intervention - except, that is, where extra time has been granted to one or more of the candidates to compensate for some learning disability or non-English language mother tongue.

In such circumstances a separate room, invigilator and tape operator (necessarily a trained finger flexer) are allocated. At each and every instruction to read or write the answer to a question, the tape operator, armed with a stopwatch, must pause the tape for a certain number of seconds. Each actual amount is a percentage of the time normally allowed and is strictly set out on a list provided by the SQA: Press pause button, start stopwatch (preferably simultaneously), wait x seconds (where x might be 7, 4, 30, 11, or whatever), release pause button, zero stopwatch. Repeat n times. A couple of hours later, as finger joints stiffen and concentration lapses, it seems to the operator that n tends to infinity. Was the training perhaps deficient in some way? Should it be refined the next year? Even if some candidates do require extra time, at least the purely written examinations should be straightforward - shouldn't they?

Well, not this year. Presumably to cut down on the number of invigilators required, the SQA decided to concertina the examinations in many subjects, with all three levels being presented in the morning session. This so-called morning session often stretches on well after 1pm, only just avoiding an overlap with the afternoon.

Starting times were staggered, the General level was offered at two different times, the end of one paper coincided with the starting time for another and breaks between papers were too short to accommodate the "extra time" candidates who ended up starting their second paper late. Separating these candidates from the rest would have required an extra room and additional supervision. Keeping all candidates together certainly prevented boredom setting in among the invigilators.

Our time checklist for the Spanish exam was not only a recipe for administrative chaos, but the constant coming and going must surely have been distracting for the candidates. I wonder, too, if all schools managed to prevent contact between the two groups of candidates sitting the General papers? And with invigilators so involved with clock-watching, distributing papers and collecting scripts (sometimes simultaneously), one might well question the amount of actual invigilating that was possible.

I have no idea how many of our Scottish schools present candidates who are granted extra time but an educated guest suggests it must be the majority. Small or large, state or independent, all must conduct the examinations according to SQA guidelines.

Juggling resources so that other school lessons and activities are affected to a minimum is of paramount importance. Accommodation, furniture, equipment, teaching staff and invigilators must be deployed to best advantage.

So finger flexing should clearly be outlawed and the whole examinations timetable put through a decompression chamber. Invigilators might then look forward to a less stressful session next year - and perhaps a more rewarding one, since even the SQA will presumably have to pay the minimum wage.

Christine Oldfield is a mathematical consultant and author who invigilated SCE examinations last month.

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