The final frontier is marking

6th May 2005 at 01:00
Exporting exam papers overseas will lower standards here, says Geoff Brookes

The news that exam papers are to be shipped overseas to be marked (TES, April 29) should come as no surprise. We live in a global market. Now we have a global examination system.

It is not as if we don't have enough people here to mark them. It is not as if there is a skills shortage. The job can be done. But the will to pay teachers more for it isn't there. Why bother if you can get the job done cheaper elsewhere? It is a fundamental principle of economics.

Yet what does it say about us? What are our priorities? If it is about saving money, then what are we saving money for? Profit? Why? What is wrong with paying the correct rate for a job? Isn't that what we are supposed to do?

Perhaps it is a sign that we have reached saturation point: that there are, in fact, just too many examination papers to be marked. A system paralysed by to a huge and unnecessary volume of external assessment. We shouldn't be looking for new ways to breathe life into the dinosaur by sending papers across the world. We should be hitting it with a stick.

Today exams are a huge industry: more thanpound;380 million a year, according to a Secondary Heads Association survey last year, to fund our entries to the examination system - and that doesn't include key stage tests. They are not really a part of the budget that any of us can interfere with. Boards put up their fees. We pay them. Everyone accepts that it is a central part of our work. Parents want them. Students want them. They are what school-leavers are supposed to have. Their qualifications are their keys. Their passports. But there are other assessments with a purpose that is yet to be made clear.

Let's think about key stage 3 examinations. We can see that they have an impact on the way 13-year-olds view their work. They have undoubtedly provided a focus and a purpose. But do they have to operate in the expensive way that they do? Truckloads of papers whizzing around the country to be marked and returned, supported by a huge infrastructure of cross-checking, moderation and administration. And why?

What is wrong with teachers carrying out such assessments themselves? Keep the papers in school and do it yourself - or even arrange a simple swap with a neighbouring school if you want. You will still be able to draw the conclusions that you need.

Of course this requires some trust in the professional judgements of teachers. That will never do. Except of course when they are employed as examiners, either here or overseas. Then they become paragons of virtue.

And the Government seems to want more and more external assessment. Which means that they will continue to find new ways to mark the things. Overseas teachers. Computers. Because a dispirited domestic workforce is more reluctant to mark them now. Their workload is heavy and the rate of pay not enough to entice them. That is certainly the message from my staffroom. But it can be fixed.

Think about it. All this unnecessary expense - and I speak here as a KS3 examiner myself, set to earn more than pound;1,000 in the next few weeks - can and should be released. Then you will be able to pay GCSE and A-level examiners properly. Because out-sourcing examining services undermines professional development in schools. What we are also shipping overseas, along with piles of paper, is the expertise. We are de-skilling ourselves and de-skilling our students.

I am sure that the act of marking and assessing will be a valuable investment in the developing awareness of sub-continental teachers. They will reap huge benefits from it. But that is what we should be doing.

Marking exam papers reinforces work in the classroom, helping teachers do a better job with their students. It is an unrivalled professional development opportunity, essential, in my view, for anyone seeking a senior position in a secondary school.

I know of no teacher who has not been made more effective by their work as an examiner. You learn how to prepare your students better; you learn how to teach more effectively. Teachers know this, yet fewer of us are prepared to do it. This is why we should divert money into paying them more to do it. Then everyone wins. Especially the students.

As it is, we are paying third-world rates to get an important job done.

Highly qualified professionals in India will be paid to mark the papers of our teenagers who earn more for a Saturday in a burger bar than their examiners might in a week. And will we see the growth of a new marketing ploy among competing exam boards, with reassurance suddenly off-ered about where papers will be marked to mollify xenophobic parents?

Are we looking at one system for the grand public schools and another for the rest of us? Your future determined by whether your paper was marked in Bangalore or Bedford? There is a huge irony here.

Every Christmas I mark English examination papers from Singapore and all parts of the world. I am always astonished by the standard of the candidates. Theirs is an achievement worth celebrating. Their papers are sent here because of the qualities we can provide. The prestige of qualifying through an examination paper marked in England is immense. The candidates value our quality and our tradition. That reputation is now at stake because we now value quantity, rather than quality.

In the end, only cheap will do.

Geoff Brookes is deputy head of Cefn Hengoed Secondary, Swansea

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today