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Invigilation is not a job for Tom, Dick and Harry

I still have the exam dream. I'm about to do a final, having revised Greek up to the last minute. A friend lets slip that it's the Hebrew exam. I've revised the wrong language. I wake up sweating and have to breathe deeply.

Exams are sensitive times, so I'm shocked to read the latest advice from the National Remodelling Team on "invigilation".

I'm an NRT fan - it presents an agenda of big thinking and promotes welcome changes - but this is a boo-boo. According to the new rules, next week is the last time teachers will be expected to supervise Year 6 pupils in key stage 2 Sats. The rule originates in the agreement drawn up by teacher unions (except the National Union of Teachers) and the Department for Education and Skills in 2003. It was agreed that "teachers should not routinely undertake administrative and clerical tasks", of which "invigilating exams" is one.

At first, I presumed it referred to those hot secondary exam gyms where supervisors parade the aisles. Maybe they could be patrolled by other adults. But Y6 is different. Here, invigilation isn't just cheat patrol - it's about letting pupils have a teacher who has nurtured them through to these tests in the room, a reassuring presence. These pupils sometimes cry, and when they do they want the teacher who can set them back on task. There is a big difference between the GCSE hall and the Y6 Sats.

It was when the agreement was codified in the teachers' pay and conditions document that it was interpreted as follows: "From September 2005, teachers will no longer routinely be required to invigilate external examinations (national curriculum tests, GCSEs and ASA2 examinations)."

A DfES spokesman assures me the change "includes a range of exams including KS2 tests", adding that the guidance was "agreed and signed by all members of the Workforce Agreement Monitoring Group" (the unions party to the agreement).

So the unions were involved in the boo-boo? I contacted them to find out whether they knew of this interpretation. Some seemed reticent. Chris Keates, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, would not answer because I'm not a member of her union. I had hoped for a little debate. So much for a "national agreement".

(If any union member would like to ask on my behalf, great!) Deborah Simpson of the Professional Association of Teachers said "the unions involved in the agreement did know from the outset that the clause on invigilation would apply to Sats", but added: "That is not to say we do not appreciate the difficulties and concerns regarding invigilation."

So our representatives colluded. I wonder if anyone who has taught Y6 was involved. Sadly, the DfES says it is unlikely this discussion was minuted.

Wasn't it important enough?

Advice has been issued on who can invigilate. The NRT suggests support staff and approvingly cites the use of former pupils, or PTA members or local citizens. I half expect them to advocate training large dogs to do the job.

It's a little boo-boo but it raises bigger issues. How well were primaries represented when the rule was drafted? Did those at the meeting understand what Sats week is like for children? Shame we can't check the minutes.

This rule negates the distinctive job done by our Y6 teachers, who guide children too young for such tests through a very tough time. It is a real skill, and I wish them all the best next week.

Finally, it confirms what many of us know: a formal exam room is alien to the sort of learning most appropriate to 11-year-olds. That we have to act as counsellors as well as invigilators shows that we should not be putting children this young through this sort of testing. That's the biggest boo-boo of them all.

Huw Thomas is a primary headteacher in Sheffield.Write to:

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