True confessions, really

17th February 2006 at 00:00
Should exam markers' duty of care extend far beyond assessing pupils'

abilities, wonders Ian Roe

When I received a note from the exam board for whom I work, I knew it was time to find room on the park bench for another grumpy old man. It helpfully outlined the board's child protection policy. I have marked English examination papers for more than 25 years and I didn't know that we needed one.

Apparently, we owe a duty of care to the children with whom we work as examiners. Pardon? I thought we just marked their papers. But I am now told that when they write things down they might be using the exam as a confessional. They may be communicating private experiences, thoughts and feelings. It seems they could be liberated by the examination hall. Their GCSE paper will thus contain all the truths they dare not say. I now have a piece of paper telling me what to do when this happens.

My problem is this. When what happens, precisely? I marked a sexually explicit script from Bradford last year. Key stage 3. Very steamy. Very crude. Had he been watching videos with an "uncle"? Or had he been watching his sister? His mother? Or was it merely oafish bravado, a puny attempt to undermine the purpose of the examination?

I knew where I was placing my money. What concerned me most was the fact he had only a passing acquaintance with the full stop. But was it my duty to dispatch an investigating team immediately? Then there was a harrowing piece I marked from overseas. A husband assaulted his wife because she lost the house keys. Gripping. Brutal. Real. But was it?

Who can say that it was true? It could be a fantasy from a fevered imagination. It could be a re-telling of a daytime TV drama I haven't seen.

The candidate may not be confessing at all. They may be using the freedom of the exam to express their wildest thoughts, safe in the knowledge that their words will never come back to haunt them. You can be terribly daring when you write for a stranger on a piece of paper destined for the incinerator.

And on what basis should I decide that this piece of writing was true? I don't know the student. It could be true. It could be false. How many fruitless hours would be wasted proving that it was merely yet another of Simon's frisky stories? Is it not better that I concentrate on more important things - the skills I am supposed to be assessing?

For once the seed is planted, how can you ever prove that a story is truly without foundation? You can never really be sure. Would a denial be sufficient? Or must we then question the purpose of that denial? How can I ever be sure what is true? How long should I spend trying to work it out?

Is a tiresome dungeons and dragons story in reality an allegory of a troubled domestic life? Is it the only way Shelley can tell someone about sheltering a psycho-killer in the attic? Should I become instantly alert when an essay begins with the words "This is a true story..."? Should I switch off suddenly if a story ends with the dreaded words: "But it was all a dream"? Or should I rather assume the opposite?

For obviously, either statement could be a deliberate deception and in fact the reverse could be the real truth. And what about the story that starts with one and then ends with the other? Is it easier that I assume everything? Or is it better that I assume nothing? Soon examiners will need a philosophy degree.

Of course I take child protection seriously. If I was sufficiently troubled by something I read, I would pass it on. But it hasn't happened yet. We should try to preserve some sense of perspective. What has happened that we now need to have a written policy? Who is worried and what are they worried about? Could I be culpable if there was a disclosure of abuse and I missed it? Or are the examiners afraid that they would be blamed for not correctly interpreting signals from someone they have never met? I think this is madness.

Better that candidates receive a balanced, accurate assessment of their abilities than this paranoid over-reaction. We should assess what is before us and then move on to the next candidate. We have enough to do. The board can exercise its duty of care by ensuring it doesn't issue answer paper on which more delicately-fingered candidates might cut themselves.

Ian Roe is a teacher in north Wales

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Write to TES Cymru, Sophia House, 28 Cathedral Road, Cardiff CF11 9LJ.

Email: 029 2066 0207

Beth yw'ch barn chi?

Ysgrifennwch at: TES Cymru,Ty Sophia, 28 Heol yr Eglwys Gadeiriol, CaerdyddCF11 9LJ.Ebost: 029 2066 0207

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