Humane rights of the tested

Such is the scale of public examinations nowadays that there have been massive difficulties recruiting enough examiners to mark national tests. Children take compulsory, and frequently the so-called optional tests, virtually every single year between the ages of five and 18. Some exam boards have had to recruit student teachers as markers.

The clinical weighing and measuring of children by the sackload is a sad symptom of the increasingly cold relationship between the masses and their masters. Assessment has moved rapidly from the informal and intimate, to the formal and clinical. With 8,000,000 children to be tested, almost on an annual basis, we shall soon have to hire every window cleaner, mortuary attendant and spoon polisher in the land to process the papers before Christmas.

Candidate 00439476 is known as BCBCDAC to the examination board, but his friends call him Harry. He is like Charlie Chaplin in the film Modern Times, frantically trying to tighten the bolt in each passing machine on the factory conveyor belt, with everything spilling remorselessly over the floor if he gets distracted.

The next wheeze to come out of the initiatives factory will be to compel every citizen to mark at least one exam paper. If you refuse, your benefits and pensions will be stopped, or you will be called up for military service. At this very moment government officials are probably standing at the entrances to supermarkets, bus, tube and train stations, offering people a few scripts to assess.

"Here you are, mark these by Friday."

"I can't."

"Right, you're in the army, grandad."

Small wonder there are bog-ups in this multi-million testing industry. Finding suitable examiners must be a nightmare. A few years ago there was a mini-scandal when it was revealed that the army of key stage 3 examiners marking papers on Shakespeare included a postman. At least the results were delivered on time.

If Postman Pat marks the papers and then delivers them, perhaps a few more television characters could help out in the crisis. Bob the Builder can plug the gaps, while the Teletubbies could help out with baseline assessment in infant schools: "Eh-oh, candidate 00362748."

"Eh-oh, Tinky Winky."

The proposal to shift national testing to computers is another symptom of the clinical view of assessment: you atomise know-ledge into tiny globs and then test them one by one. This is meant to cure the shortage of examiners, but instead it creates a shortage of sick bags.

Anyone who thinks online testing is the answer should watch green-faced student teachers, on emerging from their maths and science computerised tests, head straight for the vomitorium.

The art of humanising our complex bureaucratic society is to keep it as intimate and personal as is feasible. The bigger an organisation, the more complex and distant its communications. Messages become distorted as they crawl from top to bottom of the hierarchy. Members of small groups talk to each other and sort out problems face to face, but larger groups send memos and emails down long chains.

Despite the convenience of email I much prefer face-to-face communication.

The suggestion that schools communicate with parents via email should be approached with caution, especially when the message is a delicate one. It can easily appear curt and inhuman when read on a screen. There has even been a proposal that notification of a pupil's exclusion could be done by email.

"Dear Mr and Mrs Farnes Barnes I regret to inform you that from today your son Jason is excluded from Gasworks Academy. The little wretch is now history, dead meat, persona non grata, an ex-pupil. If you call in at the school tomorrow, between 9.15 and 9.20 am, a security guard will escort you to his desk, where you can remove his tatty, nearly empty exercise books and his stash of chewing gum. While you're on with it, you might as well take his fleas as well. Alternatively, if you provide a fumigated box, a pest control officer will forward his miserable artefacts to you."

The importance of humane communication in a complex world reminds me of the story that used to be told back in the days when people sent telegrams for special events. On her birthday a woman was surprised and delighted to see a telegram boy arrive at the door.

"I've never had a telegram in my life," she told him,"would you mind singing it for me?".

"I'm afraid we don't do singing telegrams, madam," he replied.

"Oh go on, please," she begged.

"Very well then, just this once," he said, clearing his throat.

"Di dum, di dum, di dum.

"Your Aunty Mary's dead."

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