Give the markers a break

6th August 2004 at 01:00
Margaret Tomkins says she and her fellow markers are not to blame for this year's KS3 fiasco

I was roused from the pleasant reverie I usually fall into at this point of the summer, with six weeks' hard slog as a key stage 3 English marker safely behind me, by the remark made by Martin Ward, deputy general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, that I and my ilk had gone "haywire" this year (see the Times, July 24). No, no, Mr Ward, you have got it all wrong. You need to look further up the chain of command to those lofty beings who have decreed that this exam should take its present format.

I won't dwell on last year's fiasco, and the sudden decision to alter a format that had been in place, more or less satisfactorily, for all the time I'd been a marker, in the interest of a more scientific approach - an oxymoron, if ever I heard one, for a subject such as English. Let's just look at this year's farce.

Each school was allocated two markers. As the marking of the "writing" proved quite beyond me last year (and I speak as a teacher of more than 30 years' experience), I chose "reading" and was sent 650 scripts. The test was so prescriptive that any passing teacher could have marked it, without going haywire. Eyes may have glazed, perhaps, and jaw muscles tightened in an effort to control mouths from gaping, but no professional judgment was called for, and no chance given for pupils to prove their worth. This test, in my opinion, was marker-friendly and educationally unsound. No problem there, then. I cannot, of course, speak for those foolhardy enough to undertake the "writing", although I did note that the writing tasks for Shakespeare were as far removed from the plays as they were last year.

"Hunt the connection" was the name of the game, I guess.

No, the problem for me lay in completing the marksheets. When you remember that each pupil was given a total of 22 marks, the vast majority of which lay between nought and two (some 13,000 entries, for those of you who are mathematically challenged), it will come as no surprise to learn that it took me a mere 14 hours to enter them. And, no, I didn't spend a further 14 checking they were correct. I sent the marksheets off by the deadline (I was probably alone in this - but then, I am retired) and turned my attention to more worthy matters, like getting my life back. Unfortunately, it didn't end there.

The assessment agency was faced with two problems. First, it had to collate the marks (a task key stage 4 has been doing happily for years), then it had to inform us which pupils should have borderline checks. I guess it had to add up all the noughts, ones and twos as well. Previously, we were told the levels, once the powers-that-be had decided how low they dared go, and checked them ourselves.

Now I don't know whether my fellow-marker was tardy or whether the agency collapsed under all those figures, but in the end I was only able to border check one of my three schools, and returned the other scripts, unaltered, as instructed from above. I won't elaborate on the frantic emails exchanged between me, my supervisor and the wider world. "Order, counter-order, disorder," is the cliche that springs to mind.

So, please, please, Mr Ward, and your respected colleagues, don't blame the hapless marker - who was only trying to interpret instructions - for this year's chaos. All will be well next year, I have been confidently assured.

It just won't be my problem.

Margaret Tomkins is a key stage 3 English examiner from Surrey

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