Trouble comes in threes

29th August 2003 at 01:00
If English markers are baffled, what chance do students have, asks Margaret Tomkins

I have been an examiner for key stage 3 English testing since its inception. Each year I have trundled up to London to learn the intricacies of marking reading, writing and the delights of Shakespeare. Each year there have been arguments about marking schemes, although we have all come to understand that, once God has spoken, there can be no further discussion. Each year I have sweated and grunted my way through endless papers; each year I have sworn "never again". The pain soon passes, alleviated by my financial reward in July. But this year is different.

This year God has seen the light. He has realised that all previous tests have been erroneous and that a cold, analytical eye is needed, emphasising SSP (sentence structure and punctuation), TSO (text structure and organisation) and CE (composition and effect). He had considered abandoning Shakespeare, but a mightier power (the Secretary of State) decreed otherwise.

To the glee of the media, pupils were invited to inspire a football team (Henry V), describe their favourite villain (Macbeth) or write a fashion page for a teenage magazine (Twelfth Night). Unfortunately, in his wisdom, God failed to notify his markers.

I had my first inkling that there was something amiss when I opened the sack of material from the examining board. I realised that each pupil sat three papers instead of the customary two; that no choice was given for the written response or the Shakespeare; that the reading paper left little margin for a written answer. I also realised, with mounting panic, that I had as little idea of what was expected from the pupil - and from me - as the rawest recruit.

But I did the tasks required before my first markers' meeting and rang my team leader to say I would be there. She said she had a meeting the next day just for her - she was not due to meet her team. She wished me well.

The nightmare really started with the arrival of the "live" scripts. I soon realised that the pupils were as baffled by the new format as I was. The reading paper (an amalgamation of Treasure Island, Tutankhamun and the thrill of treasure-hunting) proved relatively easy to mark. Shakespeare, too, proved a doddle, following the tried and loathed formula of other years. No, it was the writing papers which led to sleepless nights.

It was not the tasks themselves which presented problems. It soon became obvious that most of the candidates had failed to understand that they were required to write articles "inspired" by Macbeth and Twelfth Night, and so the criteria for composition and effect became, unofficially, obsolete.

However, most of them were able to write newspaper reports of dramatic rescues by daring teenagers and therefore, this time, CE had some relevance. It was SSP and TSO which proved so horrendous.

Let me explain. Each newspaper report was to be read three times, to be allocated three marks. With the help of several large brandies and frequent rests in a darkened room, I came to terms with CE and TSO, but SSP remains a source of bafflement. What, I ponder, are "expanded noun phrases", "impersonal construction", "embedded adverbial clauses", "fronted clauses" and "modals", to name but a few? The board supplied a "definitions of terms" booklet, but when I skimmed through its list of "subordinating connectives", I needed another long lie-down. And then there were the three strands of the Shakespeare writing task...

In due course, I completed the marking, with no more conviction than when I started. Three weeks later, I eyed the final threshold levels, noting that the pass mark for level four had changed since the sample levels.


Over the next three days, I dutifully totalled up all marks, checked all borderlines, entered all three levels (reading, writing and overall) on the marksheets and returned the scripts to the schools concerned. So now it's all over. Never again. Ever.

But then there's always next year's holiday to pay forI Margaret Tomkins is a key stage 3 English examiner from Surrey

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