Revealed: trade secrets of the invigilator's vigil

24th June 2011 at 01:00

"Isn't invigilating exams like watching paint dry?" people ask. Absolutely not - unless it's an art exam. It's much more like being a Formula 1 mechanic: part of a well-drilled team; mainly active at the start and end; watching others go round in circles for hours while staying alert for the occasional moments when we're needed. Exactly like F1, apart from the expensive cars. And the exotic locations. And the noise levels, obviously.

Like the mechanics, invigilators can never sleep - though admittedly we can come perilously close to it in A-level Latin on a sultry afternoon. There are always things to do: registers to complete, desks to check.

With cat-like tread we shimmy down the aisles, on alert for illicit opaque pencil cases, insufficiently black pens, calculator lids and labelled water bottles. Though you can forgive the bottle labels if the examination officer has announced, as I heard one do: "If you have a label on your water bottle, please raise your arm and an invigilator will come round and cut it off."

Invigilators love hands going up. The raised hand promises action and excitement in the long stretches between 9 and 11am. So-called Superinvigilators (like ordinary invigilators, but so strict you have never heard of them) take pride not just in getting to the raised hand first, but also in having everything a candidate could possibly need already in their pockets. Dressed in an Invi-Gilet (patent pending) with its multiple specialist pockets, the Superinvigilator can provide fully loaded black biros (ink-proof pocket), spare rulers (31cm pocket), tissues (sterile pocket) or, from the utility pocket, assorted thicknesses of sliced wine corks for placing under wobbly desk legs. Silent as a leopard, the Superinvigilator can time their aisle-shimmying so as to arrive with an extra answer booklet before the candidate has even raised their hand.

Us ordinary invigilators have to fetch things. To save time, we have developed a highly evolved sign language to signal what is needed to colleagues across the exam hall. There's the mid-air up-and-down gesture, which could mean a pen, a rubber or a very bendy ruler. And there's the pulling-out-hair gesture, when a candidate has said: "This question doesn't make sense."

With the problem solved, the invigilator withdraws. A triumphant smile indicates that we predicted in the pre-exam briefing that this candidate would make this request at this point in the exam. We're not allowed to put money on it, but maybe somewhere out there is a back room where a rogue examination officer turned bookie chalks up spread bets on an aged blackboard.

Finally, the exam ends. Like the pitstop mechanics we resemble, invigilators spring into action. We can collect one set of papers in accurate order, distribute another, retrieve equipment and dismiss students within 7.459 seconds, give or take five minutes. And all this without a sound. Invigilation: more exciting than Formula 1. Official.

Anne Borrowdale is an invigilator and a trainer.

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