For some, exams are not the way forward

1st August 1997 at 01:00
After 30 years of teaching in schools in Britain and overseas I recently retired and I have taken up work as an examiner, marking mathematics scripts for English and international examination boards. And as an invigilator for the Scottish Qualifications Authority, I have visited several schools, seen many of the examination papers and watched a large number of students, of all ability levels, at work.

Although I appreciate the opportunity to be able to do this, the question must be asked: why is money being spent on providing external invigilators to every school when examination boards in England and elsewhere in Europe entrust the task to the teachers? With students on study leave, teachers have a reduced (and often heavily reduced) teaching and preparation commitment. A properly organised invigilation rota would take up only a portion of their resulting free time.

The number of invigilators required could in fact be significantly reduced if some of the many "special" cases were eliminated. With each special student requiring an individual room, an invigilator and often a readerscribe the pressure on resources can be huge. Clearly there are students who indisputedly need and deserve special treatment and it should not be denied them. But, for example, should a student be presented for an English reading or writing examination in which they neither read or write a single word? How meaningful is their resulting qualification?

What good is a Standard grade pass in science or geography if the recipient is illiterate? Even if they do manage to gain employment, how will they fare in the world of work without the most basic of skills? Would it not be more to their benefit to forget the examinations and spend the time and resources in teaching them to read and write?

Subsequent qualifications, obtained without the help of a reader or scribe, might come a year or so later but at least they would be worth something. In a similar situation are those students whose handwriting is so bad that their answers have to be transcribed by teachers before being submitted for marking.

The desire of most teachers and parents is that students, of whatever level of ability, do their best. Leaving aside the question of adequate work throughout the year and through revision, do students actually do their best when sitting examinations? Invigilators witnessed students turning up late, arriving without pen or pencil and giving up after five or 10 minutes. These were in the minority but a much more worrying factor was the number who left examinations well before the scheduled finish time. The SQA permits this, the usual reason being that students who finish early are likely to "play around" and cause problems within the examination room. This may well be true but it is a matter of self-discipline that must be addressed long before the stage of public examination.

In a room or hall full of students the departure of one or two inevitably acts as a catalyst to others. In their eagerness to finish and join their friends they leave undone questions which are causing problems and fail to check their work thoroughly. They clearly do not do themselves justice. The more conscientious and less easily led students who continue to work have their concentration disrupted by the departure of their peers. Some schools, sensibly, ignore the SQA policy and require all students to remain until the end of examinations. Encouraged to use their time to the full these students could be seen to be doing their best.

In the worst position of all are the students who fail to turn up for examination. In a few schools there were about 20 per cent of Standard grade pupils absent for some papers. This is quite unacceptable and indicates a total lack of responsibility on the part of students and parents. Provision of examination papers and invigilators costs money. Perhaps the SQA should consider imposing a fine on parents whose children fail to turn up without adequate reason.

A considerable number of students experienced difficulties even at Foundation level and should clearly never have been entered for examinations in the first place. They were ill-prepared and their knowledge fell far below that required to obtain even the lowest grading. Such students must be better directed in their choice of options. We all wish to see teenagers achieving their full potential. The Scottish Qualifications Authority, in collaboration with headteachers, has within its grasp the means to effect some change for the better . . . and in the process reduce, rather than raise their costs.

Christine Oldfield is a mathematics tutor and consultant.

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