`Release staff to mark exams', colleges urged

21st August 2015 at 01:00
Exam boards push to recruit teachers amid acute marker shortage

Colleges will be encouraged to allow their staff to become exam markers as part of a new campaign to tackle a looming shortage, TES can reveal.

Awarding bodies have said they will need thousands of extra markers to cope with the introduction of linear GCSEs and A-levels. OCR, which almost failed to submit results last year because of problems with its marking system, has estimated that it needs 5,000 more markers.

Colleges, many of which were forced to cancel classes to deal with the volume of GCSE maths and English resits this year, said they feared a deterioration in the quality of marking if the situation was not resolved.

Now several major exam boards have joined with college leaders to form a group to tackle the problem.

In a letter to education secretary Nicky Morgan, seen by TES, the group's chairman Dale Bassett, director of public policy at AQA, writes that it will look at the barriers to recruiting and retaining examiners. It will produce a "compelling proposition" for colleges and schools to encourage and support teachers to become examiners, he adds.

Mutual benefit

The Association of Colleges (AoC), which is also contributing to the group, has held a number of meetings with AQA, the largest provider of A-levels. The association will schedule a special session about the situation at its annual conference in November.

Mark Bramwell (pictured, right), the AoC's director of sixth-form colleges, told TES: "We think we can make a convincing case to college principals that it's worth releasing staff and encouraging staff to take on those duties and undertake training to be examiners.

"We want to make it clear that there are all sorts of advantages to institutions, to teachers themselves and to their students of more teachers becoming exam markers.

"There's no better preparation for a teacher to get to understand the mark scheme for the assessment of the courses they are teaching than to mark exams themselves. They will understand the assessment criteria much better."

Mr Bramwell, a former A-level examiner, said the AoC would also encourage exam boards to look at introducing financial and other incentives for teachers.

But Andrew Harden, head of further education at the University and College Union, said the decision on whether to become an examiner should be left up to teachers. "With intense issues around workload already, we would be concerned as to how colleges could allow staff to undertake those roles," he said. "We would also be concerned staff might not have a free choice; some people could feel forced into such a position, because of poor pay, to supplement their income."

Last week, TES revealed that exam boards were on their "final warning" from the Department for Education and must prove they had "upped their game" to prevent a radical overhaul of the system that could threaten their existence. Government sources said any significant difficulties with this month's A-level and GCSE results would certainly lead to reform.

`Knocks in confidence'

OCR held a seminar with key policymakers last month to discuss the recruitment challenge. Mark Dawe, OCR's chief executive, said at the event: "We have an examining system which is the envy of the world but it needs to be manageable as well as reliable and valid. Everyone has to work together to ensure that teachers continue to examine."

An AQA spokeswoman told TES: "As always, our examiners and AQA staff worked hard to make sure everyone got their A-level results on time this year. Looking to the future, we've always known that we'll need more examiners for the reformed qualifications, so we're doing a lot of work to make sure we have them in good time for the first new exams in 2017."

The AoC is also calling on Ms Morgan to reassure colleges that there will be sufficient markers to manage the introduction of linear exams. "If that can't be guaranteed, we would ask the minister to consider delaying the reforms," Mr Bramwell said. "What we don't want is for colleges to have any further knocks in confidence."

A Department for Education spokesperson said: "Any suggestion that our reforms should be delayed is scaremongering. Our new world-class exams are being phased in to give schools and exam boards time to prepare, and it is good to see the sector working together to ensure a sufficient supply of high-quality markers.

"However, if exam boards are marketing qualifications to schools, they must ensure there are enough markers to assess them."

`It happens behind closed doors'

Daniel Dean, principal of Esher College, a sixth-form college in Surrey, says there are already issues around the quality of exam marking.

He chairs a group of local colleges and wrote to Ofqual last year, outlining its concerns.

"As principals we have no real understanding of what quality control processes are at work," he says. "Everything happens behind closed doors. If they have got it wrong the chances of overturning it are slim.

"A shortage of markers is undoubtedly a factor, although it varies from subject to subject. I've heard anecdotally of postgraduate students and people with no teaching experience drafted in to help."

In the current financial climate, colleges will find it difficult to spare the time and resources to allow their staff to become markers, he adds.

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