Glum in the sun as deadline day approaches

22nd July 2011 at 01:00

Oh, for the long, hot days of summer. Days when all you had to do was monitor the sweaty hordes in the exam room or prepare for the new influx in September.

All right, so maybe it is a vision viewed through the prism of nostalgia, but in many ways it really was like that. The third term was the "nice" term, and once exam season began in early June the pressure was off.

Maybe at times we were a little too relaxed. Witness the lecturer sitting smoking outside the exam room and chatting to a man he took to be a colleague from another site. "How's the exam going?" asked the "colleague". "Oh, you know," answered the lecturer, "the usual cock-up". At which point the other man reached into his pocket and produced his credentials as a roving inspector from the examining board.

Today, though, for nice, read nasty. True, the days are still long. And in some years at least they are hot. But everything else about the summer term has changed completely. For a start, not many FE students sit external exams any more. Most courses are assessed by coursework and go on till the bitter end.

You can't get around this by setting deadlines well in advance. When all that matters is maximising the pass rate, deadlines become no more than wish-lists and any wastrels out there have free rein to give in their work as and when they please. As long as the ink has dried before the external moderator (EV) gets through the door, it is deemed to be on time.

This year, I told myself, would be different. But then why would it be? The pressure to massage the pass rates has not gone away. If anything it is worse than ever. So it really shouldn't have come as any surprise when, two weeks before the EV was due to arrive, a student I thought had left - let us call him Herbert - announced that he wanted to complete the course after all. "But you haven't any work in your portfolio," I said. "Mark this," he replied, thrusting a wodge of paper at me. Not that he was the only one. At least two or three others were soon buzzing around, desperately trying to catch up on assignments that were due in months earlier.

Another week passed, punctuated only by the sounds of student fingers clicking on laptop keys. More last-minute assignments landed in the in- tray. And before you could say "plagiarism" it was Friday afternoon and the EV was due on Monday. Surely the worst was over? A couple of last- minute merchants were still churning it out, but at least Herbert was off being a Herbert somewhere else.

One last check through the portfolios that were complete and I would be ready for my weekend. That was when I spotted one folder looking suspiciously thin. It belonged to Carol, a conscientious student who finished the course early and returned to Canada.

Opening it up, I discovered that a third of Carol's assignments were missing. They had been there when I last looked two days ago. But they weren't there now. It was 4pm. The college closed at 6pm. Frantically, I went through all the other folders to see if the work had somehow been misfiled. It hadn't.

I winged a grovelling email to Carol's home in Canada. Had she by any chance kept the work on her memory stick? And if she had, would she mind awfully forwarding it to her desperate tutor? Next, I called the lecturer who set the missing assignments. Hallelujah! He had saved all the feedback sheets, complete with grades, and could forward them to me right away.

It was 5:10pm. At half past, Carol emailed back, attaching the work. The printer ran hot. By 5:50pm the replacement work was all there in Carol's folder.

It looked as if I would be getting a weekend after all. At 5:55pm Herbert strolled in with his five missing study skills assignments. "You'll have them marked by Monday, right?"

Stephen Jones is a lecturer at a college in London.

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