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Not all quiet on the exam front

While it's a dream job to see others doing the hard work, Donald Stewart says invigilating can be frustrating and boring: sometimes you literally watch paint dry

Since boyhood I've fancied a job where I could be paid to watch other people work and the occupation of invigilator certainly appeared to score heavily on that measure. So that's what I'll be doing again this May as the Highers, Standard grade and other Scottish Qualifications Authority exams get under way.

A couple of years ago, I called the local high school and was accepted as an invigilator on the spot, over the telephone. Didn't anyone want to see me first, or get a reference? "No, thank you," was the answer.

"You've told us your daughters were at this school and we're sure you'll be all right."

Happily, the SQA this year is subjecting invigilators to Disclosure Scotland checks, so people who might be a hazard to children are less likely to be cleared to work in Scotland's examination halls.

Though schools can assist with recruitment, the SQA appoints and pays invigilators. This year, about 5,100 invigilators and 520 chief invigilators, from Shetland to Galloway, will be experiencing that old going to school feeling. Many are retired people, but others are full-time mothers who return to the workplace for a few weeks, students and people who do other part-time jobs.

Ordinary invigilators are paid modest fees which, if exams were held every week, would amount to about pound;11,500 a year. Chief invigilators receive higher rates, reflecting their responsibilities for ensuring adequate cover of supervision in their school and the safe delivery of the right papers to the right candidates at the right time for dozens of different exams.

There is a telephone directory-sized tome of SQA rules about when candidates may leave the exam room and when they can't; who else is allowed in the room; what to do if a candidate is late, or disruptive, or takes ill, or wants to go to the toilet; the kind of answer papers are needed for individual exams; what types of equipment should be supplied; how and when tapes, CDs or videos should be played; and what may and may not be taken into exam halls.

Most candidates radiate a purposeful calm. "They realise this is the real thing, the crunch," an assistant headteacher told my group of invigilators at a briefing.

A minority appear relaxed, some because they are confident they will do well but others putting on an act of indifference because they know they haven't a chance. It's most often boys I have seen in that latter category and invariably it is the lads who are first to swagger out of the exam hall soon after the SQA's detailed timing instructions allow candidates to leave. They make a sad attempt at bravado. I have often been at the door as they leave, partly to stop some banging it shut but also to wish them well.

"How did it go?" I pleasantly asked one lad. "A load of sh***!" was his defiant reply, which to me merited an A for effective oral communication if not for range of vocabulary. Others have shown anger at the system by turning on a fire hose and flooding the area outside the hall, or burning boxes of tissues supplied for candidates, or loudly kicking a door to the hall from safety outdoors.

Invigilators have heavy hearts, however, when candidates ask for guidance we are not allowed to give on what a question means. One teenager, trying to calculate a year's salary from a week's wages, wanted to know how many weeks there are in a year: he thought 48.

Time in the exam hall can seem to pass slowly, but invigilators must stay alert and respond to hands raised for help. We all have our ways of filling the time. Counting boys and girls, candidates with and without glasses, those who write with their left or right hand, numbers with fair, red or dark hair: none is very effective. I find art exams particularly tedious.

It means three hours of literally watching paint dry, and it was no comfort when once a candidate slumped asleep at his desk.

Distractions outside the exam hall often annoy invigilators more than the candidates, so defensive do we become of our charges. A helicopter pilot angered me once by flying low over the school just as the French aural test began (so I had the tape stopped and added on a little time).

At the end of each exam, invigilators gather the answer papers and bundle them securely in sealed envelopes. Each name and candidate number is carefully checked against separate lists of up to 10 individuals and their answer papers have to go into envelopes in the order the SQA wants them to be sent to its headquarters at Dalkeith. This process generally works smoothly and swiftly in a blur of sticky tape, labels and check lists, but minor chaos can result when the school has seated candidates at desks in an alphabetical order which differs from the SQA's, particularly the "Mcs" and "Macs" and other names beginning with "M".

Teachers do not have a right of entry to examinations, apart from a few exceptions, but that doesn't stop some trying to linger once an exam has begun, to bark instructions about what attitude students should take or what to do once the exam is over. There are ways of getting around the rules, though.

Just before the beginning of one Higher music exam, the head of department sidled up to me and quietly asked: "Would you mind if I started the CD with the exam's music, please? I've done it for the past two years and I honestly believe it brings the students good luck!" How hard-hearted would an invigilator have to be to refuse? She was given the go-ahead and I learned later the results were once again first class.

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