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Curse of SyCorAAx

Gavin Knight on the trials of speaking and listening assessment.

There was once a race of evil Mages with too much power and time, who decided English teachers' assessments of speaking and listening skills were open to abuse. They decreed a fearful challenge for unsuspecting brethren of the boke. Subject leaders such as I were summoned and informed what fate awaited those who could not pass the cunning test of assessment prowess devised by the witch SyCorAAx. The year was 1997, and it was not good.

After half a day's training in the subtle arts, or "standardisation" as the dark lords named it, we were sent back to our own apprentices to await the mighty Inter Board Moderation video tape. For two weeks we watched the video on our own, at home, and in pairs during lunchtime, in preparation for the whole-department viewing.

Television sitcoms would have us believe that marking is all about putting big red ticks on every page. If only life were that simple. We English teachers like to make things difficult for ourselves. We deal in subjectivity. We try to consider the broader spectrum of understanding within the pupil response. We make rods for our own backs and wouldn't have it any other way. So when it comes to assessing the oral contributions of pupils we don't know, completing work we haven't set up and speaking in a brogue we struggle to understand, well, you might expect a considerable divergence of opinion.

If we got our assessments of the pupils on the tape wrong by more than two marks out of 25 we would be visited by a moderator from out of county. This unknown guest would sit in on a speaking and listening task in our school, would grade the pupils independently (and in secret), and would then compare scores with those of the internal moderator. If there was a significant divergence then the marks of every pupil doing GCSE English could be altered. In 1997, we managed to get it right. So too did 95 per cent of schools. In 1998 we were successfu again. Out of 1,000 SEG centres only 17 had their marks adjusted last year, and nine of these were moved up.

Surely this represents a significant achievement? Good enough to prove that English teachers do know what they are talking about? Apparently not. I have now attended my third standardisation meeting. It seems that the tapes have gone so well that they are to become an annual event.

Does anyone realise the stress that this causes? Or care about the hours of additional meetings we have to organise on top of our traditional commitments just to make sure that the process goes well?

It's not that I don't appreciate the opportunity training like this can afford. These materials are really good for helping to bring new teachers and PGCE students up to scratch in this difficult area. They do help the department have a more finely- tuned awareness of the grading criteria and how to apply it. We've even found them beneficial as a means of promoting guided discussion with pupils before running our own internal assessments. I just don't feel it is necessary to go through this ordeal every year. It's not as if we don't still have our regional moderators coming in to check up on our speaking and listening procedures. That layer of inspection continues and is in constant operation.

Couldn't the resources be better used in the training of new teachers in the overall application of GCSE criteria? Couldn't courses be run looking at the nature of assignment setting, or the use of pre-20th-century literature, or the teaching of poetry, or the assessment of Shakespeare?

Couldn't English departments be trusted to undertake standardisation trialling such as this once every four years? Perhaps with the proviso that if the make-up of the teaching team changes by more than 25 per cent over a short time, then a revision exercise, or visit by the local moderator, might be triggered?

Gavin Knight is head of English at St Edmund's School, Dover, Kent

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