We are told the system for marking examination papers is falling apart. I'm not surprised. There is tension at the heart of the system that can't be resolved; we are teachers, not professional examiners.
For many examiners - I have marked English papers for 25 years - it is a welcome extra source of income. But it isn't our full-time job. We are a kitchen table army that keeps the exams working. But many of us are deciding it's not worth it. We are less keen to do it in the face of threats couched in the usual terms of "professional standards" and "higher levels of accountability". But without teachers working into the night, exams can't happen.
Every year the system creaks and groans, but we still get the marks out on time in August. One day it won't happen. Last year, there were dark tales of scripts still untouched at the beginning of August. One board now pays its examiners a retainer because of a recruitment crisis. Despite this, the demand for markers grows. We have more external exams than anyone else. If we continue to insist upon this huge assessment monolith, we need to find people who can mark the papers. Where will they come from?
One solution is to reduce the number of exams. Most of us would welcome that. But replace them with internal assessment? We've been told before that our assessments are unreliable and discredited. Teachers shouldn't be trusted to assess their own candidates. What's changed?
We could look at electronic marking systems. But not everything can be marked by computer. All credibility would disappear if performance were determined solely by multiple-choice questions that a machine could mark.
We need to see that our candidates can put together joined-up answers.
One suggestion is to change teacher contracts. Make marking a professional obligation for all, possibly by swapping scripts with another school. It won't work. It may cut costs, but it is fraught with difficulty. Lots of teachers won't want to do it. You need a curious mindset to come home from a hard day at school and work through a pile of papers. This is one reason why the boards rely on the retired. Forcing teachers to take on the task unwillingly will not serve the best interests of the candidates and it won't make the procedure any more successful or reliable.
Marking centres where examiners can gather to mark and receive support have been suggested. This assumes that we are all conveniently grouped and could access such a centre easily, and that teachers in one area work for the same exam board. But we are spread far and wide, working for many boards with their own requirements. We are the sharp end of a highly complex cottage industry. But it works - when there are enough people to do it. And there's the answer.
If there is a crisis, pay is the problem. The present hourly rate is miserable. So increase pay to a point at which teachers are prepared to do it and prepared to accept the responsibility that comes with it. At a meeting in June last year, Qualification and Curriculum Authority officials seemed to want to believe that professional development is the key motivation for markers. This produced hollow laughter from the grey old soldiers. No one would mark papers without a cheque. We are happy to operate within the system even if it is flawed, because the boards are prepared to pay us. Pay us properly and you'll get the job done. And remember, if teachers won't do the work, who will?
Geoff Brookes is deputy headteacher at Cefn Hengoed community school in Swansea