Earlier this year I was chatting to a fellow principal examiner. We discussed how many of the 40 to 50 examiners we supervise on our respective papers would be back next year. It certainly gave us pause for thought.
Over the years I’ve had many examiners say to me "if I take one summer off, I probably won’t come back". Well, they’ve had two summers off now. Does this mean we could have seen the back of many of them?
Whereas in 2020 some exam boards made use of the furlough scheme or made ex-gratia payments to retain the goodwill of their examining team, this year, there has been nothing.
The risk now is that many examiners will realise they don’t really need the extra money and they actually quite enjoy the extra time.
Why should we care about this? Because the accurate assessment of candidates’ work is at risk if there is a lack of suitable, skilled examiners and so those who remain are overwhelmed with the number of papers they have to mark.
GCSE and A-levels 2022: Teacher examiner barriers
How can we make sure that we don't find ourselves in this situation? It won’t be easy, as the usual barriers to recruiting examiners have been exacerbated by Covid.
Firstly, we need to consider examiners' time and workload. For full-time teachers, an exam board allocation can add 10-15 hours to the working week for the three-to-four-week marking period. It may be quieter in school next year once Year 11 and Year 13 have left, but it also may not be – these have been uncertain times.
Secondly, some schools and colleges still short-sightedly view exam work with suspicion, believing that if a teacher takes it on, it means that they lack commitment to the school or have too much time on their hands.
At the more severe end of the scale, some schools still actually prevent teachers from doing this work.
Examiner shortage: How do we fix this?
So what can we do about this situation? I think the issue needs to be tackled on three levels.
1. The personal level
I would encourage teachers to think seriously about whether they can be examiners next year.
There will almost certainly be vacancies, and the experience could help your work with your students as well as add something to your CV. Why not go on to your exam board’s website and register your interest today.
There are plenty of benefits to being an examiner, too. You learn a lot from standardising and marking candidates' work, from being on the inside of the process and listening in on the dialogue that takes place.
Nuances in mark schemes that may have previously passed you by become clear. Your work with your students next year will be enhanced and the benefits can be shared with your department. Think of the benefits of having at least one examiner in each subject team in your school.
The extra money is also nice. It won’t make you a millionaire but there have been times where my exam board earnings have meant a nice holiday or the ability to keep the car on the road.
Finally, there is the opportunity to network and develop other aspects of your career. It is no exaggeration to suggest that most of my professional opportunities in the last 15 years – writer, trainer, conference speaker - have arisen from my exam board work rather than the day job.
The opportunities to network are particularly important after 18 months of isolation. Some of my closest and wisest friends in the teaching profession are fellow senior examiners and it can be a great way to broaden your career network and open up new avenues.
Schools and colleges need to recognise the benefit of this work and do things that make it easier for colleagues who put themselves forward.
My own college has a policy where staff doing exam duties can work from home for one day, on a day where they have next to no teaching. It’s a really helpful move and one others should look to follow.
Exam boards also need to think about making the marking role more attractive or manageable. What about offering smaller marking allocations to new examiners or those who are just plain busy?
Ultimately, support will be needed, at the highest level, from the government and Ofqual.
This could involve funding to support an increase in examiner fees, or to help schools supply cover to give marking time to teacher examiners.
We can also think outside the box, here. What if centres were to get a significant rebate in exam fees for each examiner they provided? Or what if examining were recognised as CPD and those who marked gained some credits towards a Master's?
There may very well be other and better ideas than the ones above. Whatever they are, it is important that energy is put into finding them early in the coming academic year so that the return to exams does not become yet another avoidable mess.
Chris Eyre is a senior examiner and teacher of religious studies. He tweets @chris_eyre