Covid-19: Why exam boards must look after their markers

In the circumstances, who would blame teachers if they refused to sign up as markers, asks one veteran examiner

Yvonne Williams

Coronavirus: Exam boards must look after their markers in these unprecedented times, writes Yvonne Williams

As schools and teachers rush to evaluate the evidence to rank their students and predict exam grades, the plight of examiners seems to have been forgotten. These are the people who usually do the highly skilled, onerous job of assessing the nation’s 16- and 18-year-olds under intense pressure of time, often working very early in the morning or late at night after a full day at school.

The myth of examiners’ pay

Too often the earnings of examiners have been portrayed as pin money for women whose husbands are the main breadwinners – or, more recently, as the extra funds needed for little luxuries such as that family holiday you couldn’t otherwise afford.

It’s a convenient cultural myth that overlooks the fact that within the mass of examiners there are people completely dependent on that income, who are genuinely facing financial hardship. 

Senior examiners’ conditions

Senior examiners are tied to the examining system all year round. They are expected to make themselves available for queries and, of course, marking reviews from the height of the summer well into the autumn. They take on the onerous job of paper setting and attend committees to check the papers, make amendments and where necessary rewrite questions. And obviously they supervise marking in the summer, from initial examiner training to remarking papers which have not been correctly assessed or even been left over when markers have dropped out. How much frantic work goes on behind the scenes just before results are issued?

Is it good faith on the part of awarding bodies to be so slow in reassuring these loyal and flexible employees of an income stream, albeit rather less than they would have earned? The government’s furlough arrangements do cover people who are employed for three months or more. Surely it should not be beyond the awarding bodies’ finance departments to deal with this promptly for those who serve them on a more extended basis?

Online markers in the virtual sweatshops

That does not mean that we should overlook the huge contribution of the assistant examiners – those at the sharp end of the online marking. They are paid a pittance for the hours they spend in the virtual sweatshops of online marking. Their computers and running costs are taken for granted by exam boards, which have never offered to compensate markers for the wear and tear on their personal IT system or the electricity it takes to run the computer.

Examiners, who used to be paid on completion of marking, have to wait a month or more to suit the convenience of their temporary employers’ payment runs. Expenses can sometimes be delayed by longer if the form has not been signed off in time. 

With technology has come layer on layer of overseers – all more highly rewarded than the assistant examiners. Boards pay vast sums for the IT platforms they use, and for the tech "support", which is often only supportive in name. Examiners’ pay and conditions come well down their list of priorities.

Acting with integrity

In the meantime, schools are asking about a refund of exam entry fees in the light of the service boards will not be offering. It will be interesting to see if any rebates are forthcoming.

This is not a good look for the exam boards. Being unsupportive of examiners and holding on to fees can appear grasping. Words are cheap when it comes to assuring examiners of the boards’ good intentions. If fees are not to be refunded then surely there is a moral obligation at the very least to provide some form of compensation.

Those of us with long memories will remember that in the early 1990s – possibly 1993 – moderators of key stage 3 school-assessed papers received payment per centre if teachers had refused to mark in line with union advice at the time. Thus there is a precedent for doing the right thing. 

The fact is that if you look after markers now you will be assured of their services in the future.

Long memories

It matters very much how people are treated – especially in such an unprecedented crisis as this. And people have very long memories when it comes to choosing whether to mark or to take on other forms of part-time work to make ends meet.

At the best of times, examining has had a bad press. It has become extraordinarily difficult to find sufficient numbers of markers to ensure that all grades can be issued on time – especially when the system comprises nearly 100 per cent terminal written examination. The double whammy of a shortage of markers and an increase in the number of exam papers to be marked has been only just manageable in the past – if that.

This has led to a lowering of expectations of markers’ qualification to mark, especially the number of years in the classroom. There have been articles published by Tes about recruiting potential markers from bus stops and retirees on cruise ships; there has even been a bounty on their heads for any existing examiner able to recruit a friend to sacrifice their summer to mark a paper.

Keep the faith

Keeping faith with the examiners on their books, especially the ones who serve them loyally and without question during the year, is vital to keep senior examining experience in-house. 

Finally, Ofqual is promising dissatisfied students a chance to take the examination in the autumn. If this is the case then awarding organisations will have to mobilise very quickly. Let’s hope that they have sufficient numbers of markers at the start of what promises to be an overcrowded term to mark these papers. Who could blame serving teachers if they decided not to sign up?

Yvonne Williams is head of English and drama in a secondary school in the South of England. She has contributed chapters on workload and wellbeing to Mentoring English Teachers in the Secondary School, edited by Debbie Hickman (Routledge)

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