Every day is a test

13th July 2001 at 01:00
A Cardiff comprehensive is reaping the benefits of a full-time examinations officer. But Glenda Coles is one of a rare breed, reports Elaine Williams

Years spent dealing with benefits claimants have undoubtedly given Glenda Coles the qualities she needs in large measure for her present post. Bucketloads of patience and steely composure are just the ticket when it comes to working as an examinations officer in a 2,500-strong secondary school.

Mrs Coles works full-time at Whitchurch high school, Cardiff, and her heart goes out to all those teachers who might be trying to do the job while juggling another. She is not a teacher, and values her administrative training as an executive officer for the civil service. She has an eye for detail - which is just as well as the logistics of her job, particularly over this past year, with the advent of AS-levels, would bring pallor to the cheeks of the most hardened military strategist.

In the past few weeks, she has put in 12-hour days and taken work home. She has had to commandeer 50 classrooms - almost one-third of the entire school - to use as exam rooms, co-ordinate 60 or 70 teachers as invigilators, deal with 75 exam clashes in which pupils have needed individual supervision, and post up to 1,000 scripts a day to the exam boards.

She also is an expert at exam "first aid" and has a big box of tissues, as well as sympathy, counselling skills and a ready sense of humour for all the casualties that come through her office door in the course of the year.

And she's the one who has to check when pupils fail to turn up for an exam. One girl got the wrong time for GCSE maths and was babysitting her two-year-old nephew. She was rushed in, with the toddler, who then became the charge of the exams staff.

Glenda Coles is paid as a local education authority professional officer, which means she's on a similar scale to a teacher who has been in post for three to four years. Most exam officers tend to be teachers who also have another role - as deputy head or senior teacher. Increasing numbers are turning this role into a full-time job, but few schools so far have employed a trained, full-time administrator.

Glenda Coles did work for a short time for the Welsh Joint Education Committee, packing and checking scripts in the dispatch department, so she had some prior knowledge of the system.

Now, with a sixth form of more than 400, the introduction of AS-levels has had a seismic impact on her work. From January to June, she processed 7,500 exam entries, compared with 5,000 last year - and had to draw up even more complex exam timetables. In the past, she says, a student taking three A-levels would have required three entries to the relevant exam board in his or her examination year. Now, with pupils studying an average of four AS subjects in Year 12 and four subjects for A2 in Year 13, she estimates she will have made 32 entries per pupil over the two years, as an extra entry has to be made each time AS-pupils "cash in" a grade rather than continue the subject to A2-level.

Moreover, that figure does not include retakes - and she's expecting significant numbers of those. "Some of the bright pupils are saying they don't want to be given a grade this year because they can't be sure of getting an A," she says. "They want to have another go next year when they're a bit more mature."

In the post-exam mopping-up period - and before the results come out - Mrs Coles is writing up advice for staff on AS resit rules. "It's so complicated staff just can't get their heads round it, but they'll need to know what all the options are.

"Staff and pupils have been under terrific pressure. They'd all had enough by Easter. Not only that, but they lose so much teaching time with AS - three weeks in January and three weeks in June is an awful lot. This is what staff are most concerned about. Do we want jacks of all trades, or do we want masters of their subjects?" Mrs Coles took up the job five years ago, taking over from a relieved deputy head who had struggled through the summer after the previous incumbent, a retired maths teacher, died. Mrs Coles was told she could work flexibly and would find the bulk of her commitment in the spring and summer term. But the intensifying exam cycle and the hardening of the exam culture have made the task non-stop, particularly as she organises SATs as well as all internal and mock exams.

In some respects, the job has simplified as she now has only four exam boards to deal with - three English boards and the Welsh Joint Education Committee - instead of eight previously, but the volume of traffic has increased dramatically. Nor is her job made any easier by the apparent turmoil the boards seem to be in for much of the time. She says she spends hours hanging on the end of a phone being passed from pillar to post in answer to a query.

September, once the gentlest month, is now almost as busy as the rest because of the challenges on results, all of which land on her doorstep. "In years past, I would have had half a dozen queries, but last year I had more than 40. When the results come out, not only the overall grade but the mark for every component - with the grade boundaries - is listed. Pupils can see that they might have missed a grade by only two marks, analyse this information and act on it."

It is also the month when all the exam certificates come in for distribution, and when some are sent back because of errors. She also collates entries for resits at the beginning of the autumn term. October is the month for processing entries for January exams; resits take place in November; mock exams in December. And so the year rolls on apace.

Mrs Coles believes any would-be exams officer needs to be placid. "At first, I used to wake up in the night worrying if I had done everything that should be done. Pupils must have fair play; they must never experience panic or stress because they don't know which room they're supposed or be in, or whether or not somebody is going to turn up to invigilate.

"But as time went on I stopped worrying. On any one day you never know what's going to come through that door, especially during the busy summer period, but I realised that whatever happens you can usually get round it."

Gareth Matthewson, head of Whitchurch, says the intensifying exams culture will force many more schools to take on full-time exams officers. The job, he says, is now incompatible with a teaching commitment. "You cannot afford to make one mistake, because a child's future could be jeopardised. It's a complex job. I wouldn't like to do it, but Glenda Coles knows all the rules."

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