MINISTERS could be forced to spend more than pound;20 million on extra pay for examiners to avoid a shortage crisis next summer. An urgent increase in fees is widely regarded as the only short-term measure which will avoid meltdown following this year's A-level fiasco.
The demand for funding comes as it is revealed that the exam and test bill has shot up to more than pound;200m - a 50 per cent increase since Labour came to power. The Secondary Heads Association described the figures as a "public scandal".
The examiner shortage is the most serious threat to next year's exams, according to Ken Boston, head of the Government's exam watchdog, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. The issue was top of the agenda at the second meeting of the new exam task force this week.
Two years ago, the Scottish executive decided that paying markers more was the only way to restore confidence in the exam system after computer errors caused chaos. About pound;3m was invested to raise the pay of 7,000 examiners by 50 per cent. A similar increase for the 50,000 examiners needed in England would require more than pound;20m.
Previous demands for Government investment have been met with the insistence that exams are the responsibility of the awarding bodies. The boards claim any fee increase would be passed on to schools who have already seen their exam bill double since the introduction of the reformed A-level.
However, Education Secretary Charles Clarke has said he will take the steps necessary to "recruit examiners rapidly and effectively".
A-level and GCSE examiners earn between pound;10 and pound;12 an hour. There is significant variation in the fee per script (pound;2 to pound;3), how many scripts examiners mark and over what period.
One senior exam board figure said: "The bottom line is that if we want more teachers involved in marking there has to be a greater incentive for them to do it. That means financial incentives."
David Hart, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "When there is a shortage you have to jack up the rates the market is offering. With schools' huge exam bills, the awarding bodies should be awash with cash."
Controversial solutions, including extending the recruitment of examiners to trainees, retired teachers and non-teaching subject specialist, such as vicars, are on the table. Also under discussion is the creation of schools of excellence for examining, which are given extra Government funding like specialist and beacon schools.
In the longer term, examining could become an essential part of teachers' professional development. There is widespread support for the Secondary Heads Association idea of chartered examiners, where registered teachers in every secondary monitor marking.