When a pile of pupils' scripts did not reach the exam board, the press had a field day.
Gerald Haigh investigates the growing responsibilities of the examinations secretary.
Last summer, James Hornsby High School in Laindon, Essex, found itself in difficulty when the teacher running external examinations failed to post some of the completed papers to the board for marking. The exact circumstances of the case are still to emerge (and the teacher is still suspended), but such an incident thrusts the examinations secretary's job right into the spotlight, as well as underlining the responsibilities attached to it.
Once the job involved organising and running a summer series of O-level and A-level exams, perhaps by only one board. Now it involves the organisational challenge of meeting the entry regulations and deadlines of a multiplicity of boards. The system of tiered exams adds a further complication. In fact, the increase of tiered examinations, modular A-level courses and GNVQs has done as much as anything else recently to make examinations administration a full-time occupation in a large secondary school.
Joe Lyon, examinations secretary at Gateacre School in Liverpool and a teacher for 32 years, describes it as effectively a year-round job in a school of 1,500 pupils: "Re-sits in November, registrations for modular courses, organising entries to be in by early February." The peak period for an examinations secretary is still the summer term, beginning with the arrival of the question papers, which all have to be checked and securely stored. "There's masses of them," says Joe Lyon. "You have to count them all - subjects, and tiers within subjects - against the numbers of candidates. It's not a five-minute job.
"The nightmare is having candidates turn up for an exam and there being no question paper for them," he says, although in 10 years as exam secretary at Gateacre, this has never happened to him.
However, he does admit to panicking now and then. Once, having allowed the head of languages to hear an A-level audio tape in advance - as permitted under board rules, to check that the tape is technically satisfactory - he woke up in the night unable to remember what he had done with it afterwards. "I had to go in the next morning, which was a Saturday, and, of course, I had safely locked it away."
The nightmare has happened to others, though. One former head of science recalls going to the examinations secretary on the morning of an exam to find that the papers were not there. "The exam board had slipped up and the exam secretary had failed to spot the problem when he checked the papers in. It was a momentary lapse by a normally meticulous person," - in this case the problem was solved by photocopying a neighbouring school's papers.
The early summer also sees the exam secretary making domestic arrangements for exams - drawing up a room timetable (halls and gyms for major subjects such as English and mathematics, smaller rooms for minority subjects) and assigning invigilators.
Then comes the exam period itself, bringing a daily need to check that the preliminary planning has worked, that there is a room for every exam, with a seat and the right paper for each candidate, that the invigilators are there and that all the candidates present. Afterwards comes the routine of collecting up and securing the completed papers and packing them for posting, making sure that the right address labels go on the packages.
Sandra Hopkin, the administrative assistant at Coundon Court, a large 11-18 comprehensive in Coventry, says it is not unknown for the examinations board to report the non-arrival of a package of papers. "It's invariably sorted out, and although I always know that I've sent them off correctly, there's that little worry until I've actually checked."
As an additional safety precaution, at Coundon Court the examinations office is used for nothing else. This means that there is no danger of examination papers being lost among other packages and documents. "If there's nothing left in the cupboard then you can see that the papers have been dealt with," says Sandra Hopkin.
August brings the results, so the examinations secretary is in school, tabulating and collating the data and getting it ready for the students and teachers. Queries and protests quickly follow, with some parents wanting to know about appeals as well as re-marking.
And to illustrate that the job never ends, Simon Ellis, the examinations secretary at Coundon Court, says he took a call in early September from a parent wanting to know the date of his child's last examination next summer, because he wanted to book a holiday. This, it seems, is a common query.
The job of examinations secretary in a big school is very clearly not for the person who has to check four times that the front a door is locked, or for the one who leaves a class's homework on the Tube. So what kind of people are suited to it?
At Coundon Court, the role is split. Simon Ellis, associate head of the maths department, has the professional responsibility, but the day-to-day administrative work is done by Sandra Hopkin. Their headteacher, David Kershaw, believes that it is no longer practical for the whole job to be done by a teacher.
"Each summer we have over 400 youngsters doing external exams, and it's becoming a year-round job," he says. "We have a non-teaching exam secretary and a teacher who has one additional salary point to give professional input. We think that's most effective."
During the peak period, Sandra Hopkin works on exam business almost full-time. Even so, there is still plenty for Simon Ellis to do - he visits all the exam rooms to check the starting and invigilation arrangements. This, he admits, often makes him a few minutes late for a lesson. "Fortunately, we're the kind of school where classes will settle themselves down until I arrive. If we had children who couldn't be left, it wouldn't be so easy."
At Gateacre, a school of similar size to Coundon Court, Joe Lyon manages to keep on top of most of the job by himself (although another teacher looks after key stage 3 national tests and internal exams and also knows the external exam system). His headteacher, Peter Barnes, says: "He's magnificent, first class. He has to be superbly organised. He has a pretty full teaching commitment as well, though he does not have a tutor group." - he teaches politics and business studies to Year 11s and above, which helpfully means that his timetable is fairly light during the exam period.
"I get in to school every morning at 7.15am," says Joe Lyon, "And when the exams are on I probably leave about 6pm or 6.30pm." His satisfaction comes from being on top of a complicated and demanding job which is necessary and appreciated. "It does give you a buzz. At the beginning of July, when the exams are over and everything winds down, I feel really lost."
Simon Ellis agrees: "I like the organisation, getting people into the right place. At the end of each day, when everything's gone well, it's quite pleasing."