Thursday’s article revealing the most-complained-about exam boards caught me by surprise. I was amazed that colleagues had managed to navigate the maze of exam-board departments and procedures to place their concerns at the door of the state exams regulator. In my worst experience, it seemed easier for Indiana Jones to get to the Lost Ark than for a head of department to gain access to the complaints procedure.
But it would be uncharitable to assume that boards don’t want to hear the bad news from its customers. Representatives have assured Tes readers that AQA “take all complaints seriously” and Edexcel, not to be outdone, "take all complaints made against us very seriously.”
It has to be acknowledged that these times aren’t the easiest for any educational institution, let alone exam boards. We live in more transparent and potentially litigious times. Communication technology has shortened response times and increased expectations of speedy replies. The higher volume of exam entries increases the chances of dissatisfaction. More exams need more examiners. And, where there are fewer new recruits, the extra pressure on existing examiners makes errors more likely.
Exam boards have become much more bureaucratic: new departments are springing up all the time. It’s a much more crowded landscape these days to navigate, whatever the transaction.
And, of course, the higher the educational stakes arising from league tables and inspection, the more likely that teachers and school leaders will be critical of the services they receive – or don’t receive. In short, there are more opportunities for things to go wrong, and more publicity for errors that could damage confidence in the boards’ services.
The trouble is that boards have an ambivalent approach to righting wrongs and improving the service they offer. The fear of high numbers of complaints in the public domain is enough to make any organisation eager to keep adverse publicity to a minimum. But fail to deal with dissatisfaction with the board’s services and schools are likely to slip quietly away and resolve not to do business with the board again.
Route through the maze
Therefore it’s very much in the interest of exam boards to facilitate a way through the maze of departments and speed up the process. To that end, perhaps the following steps could be introduced:
1. When boards publish their complaints procedure, they should include the names and roles of all the people who will consider the case, along with their contact details and contact times. (Some may be part-time, working on specific days.) Direct phone numbers and email addresses of the personnel who will deal with the complaint should be clearly indicated. This would reduce the time exams officers spend on the website and hanging on the phone trying to access this most basic information.
2. There should be a clear progression through the process, perhaps as follows:
- The first communication should establish the status of the complaint. I have before now been somewhat nonplussed by the linguistic sleight of the exam board’s representative trying to downgrade my complaint to something milder.
- The complainant should be informed how they will know when a stage has been completed.
- They should be informed where to go from there should they wish to escalate the complaint.
- Should the board fail to resolve the matter to the satisfaction of the complainant, they should let the complainant know when and how they can activate the Ofqual complaints procedure.
3. As the process drags on, it can seem to the weary subject leader/exams officer that the only function of the complaints procedure is to wear them out and keep the ball (complaint) out of the net. Therefore, it would be helpful for all concerned to have stricter time limits applied, so that schools don’t have to keep going back to the same point.
4. The person coordinating the board’s response should ensure that they are at all times accurate in establishing the facts of the case, showing what actually happened within the organisation. This is not easy, as the person dealing with the school will have to synthesise information from various sources. It is helpful to everyone to keep the account accurate, specific and consistent. It damages the credibility of the board when inconsistencies and contradictions occur.
Given the nature of the external examination mechanism, its overcomplicated bureaucracy and the pressures of a high-volume, time-poor marking system operating within an intolerably high stakes context, errors are inevitable. This is why a robust complaints procedure is so vital.
Obviously, schools would prefer not to work with providers who make numerous mistakes. However, they are more likely to stick with the board that demonstrates integrity and fairness in putting matters right than one that they feel unable to trust.
Yvonne Williams is a head of English and drama in a school in the South of England