Free us from examinations

13th January 2006 at 00:00
Teachers no longer have to invigilate external exams so heads must find suitable replacements. Martin Whittaker reports

With the onset of this year's exam season, secondary teachers will be breathing a collective sigh of relief at no longer having to spend hours pacing up and down the gym.

New arrangements brought in under the national workload agreement last September mean teachers are no longer required to invigilate external exams, including national curriculum tests.

Schools have had to make other arrangements - and this has presented headteachers with the dilemma of whom to bring in to do what is, after all, a very responsible job.

According to National Assessment Agency guidelines on recruiting invigilators, those considered suitable include parents, school governors, retired members of staff, self-employed or retired members of the community, and university students.

The Association of School and College Leaders says most schools are managing to find cost-effective, sustainable ways of relieving teachers of exam invigilation. ASCL president Sue Kirkham said: "Since we've known for some time that this was going to be compulsory this year, the schools that have planned well in advance are not finding it a problem.

"Many schools introduced invigilators who are not teachers during the last two years to try it out before it was statutory."

But any schools that are not prepared could face a dwindling supply of external invigilators. "Obviously they may be finding it more problematic because you can't fall back on teachers," she said. "Schools recognise that it's a good idea. It's just whether they can get the right quality of people and whether they can afford it."

The real cost of bringing in non-teachers to do invigilation is still unknown. The Department for Education and Skills says the change does not have to mean extra cost as schools can redeploy support staff. But according to the ASCL, it could cost an extra pound;12,000 a year for a secondary.

In Hertfordshire, many secondaries have used non-teaching exam invigilators for years. But for some schools the new invigilation arrangements are causing as much concern as cover, often depending on the local availability of invigilators.

A Hertfordshire county council spokeswoman said: "Most schools are able to appoint enough invigilators, although there are occasions when demand is very high, for example, when there are exams that involve a lot of students."

George Stephenson high school in Newcastle upon Tyne has brought in external invigilators for the past five years, including university undergraduates. But last year it appointed and trained its own team.

Headteacher Anne Welsh said: "We figured that as soon as everybody had to do it, the demand for these students from the local agency would be very great."

The school's own team of invigilators come from a range of occupations, including retired teachers and the police. What qualities were they looking for?

"The most important quality is inter-personal skills, their ability to get along with teenagers, particularly teenagers under stress," said Ms Welsh.

"And the ability to be clear and direct with students, as well as reassuring."

According to the NAA guidelines, schools should first look to their existing support staff. It cites the benefits - support staff will be familiar to pupils and they will know school policies.

Where schools do need to recruit externally during peak exam time, heads are advised to consider certain factors.

There may be a need for a Criminal Records Bureau check; are potential invigilators flexible and reliable, and will they be available for more than one exam period? And are there issues with potential recruits being known to exam candidates?

One Welsh education authority has drawn up a job description for exam invigilators, agreed by all schools.

But according to a report by the Welsh inspection body Estyn, some pupils have expressed concern that they may not know exam invigilators, and that they may not have enough expertise to advise them properly if difficulties arise during an exam.

One London secondary school is trying to avoid bringing in invigilators by using learning mentors, though the school may have to supplement its team by recruiting outside.

A senior manager said bringing in invigilators was not the answer in an inner-city secondary school where many pupils are not confident exam candidates.

"We didn't feel we could rely on people who the children didn't know at all," he said. "I think a teacher invigilating just has an intellectual confidence about them, and they understand what has led to the final exam.

I think they are more reassuring in that scenario than someone who is a non-teaching administrator."

Anne Welsh at George Stephenson high school says she has seen definite benefits in freeing her teachers from exam duty. Last summer they used their time teaching smaller groups of pupils who needed extra help, and could collaborate more with colleagues.

"It means that instead of being stuck in a gym, standing around watching children write for two months in the summer, they are actually doing other things."

For the National Assessment Agency's Invigilator Recruitment Guidelines, see

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