As this year's testing season draws nearer, I wonder what lessons have been learned from last year's experience. A series of reports evaluating the 1995 testing programme has been published, so there is plenty of information about what went wrong.
For example, there have been claims that the number of children obtaining lower grades may have been exaggerated owing to a system of counting introduced by good old John Patten. Nuff said.
There were also a few problems with the key stage 3 English papers. The evaluation revealed that the best markers were teachers who were actually teaching English to 14-year-olds at the time. Other markers without that recent direct experience were less accurate. Some of the 2,000 people who marked the scripts did not seem qualified to assess the performance of 14-year-olds in English, and one person, apparently, ticked as correct a pupil's Shakespeare script that said Romeo used "Simples and Metfords".
On the other hand, the marker may, of course, have been correct. It has been too readily assumed that the candidate should have written "similes and metaphors", and that the marker did not spot the error, but this interpretation may be incorrect. Not many people realise that Simples and Metfords really do exist, and are in fact less well-known figures of speech.
A Simple, as its name suggests, is a facile self-evident remark, like John Major's vision of education for the 21st century presented to his party conference, when he said that children should learn to "read, write and add up".
This is a classic Simple, and someone who utters tons of them is known as a Simpleton. The candidate obviously had John Major in mind and was thinking of the moment when Romeo says to his friend Benvolio: "O, teach me how I should forget to think", a good example of what a Simpleton like Major actually does.
A "Metford" is a little more obscure. It is an expression of revulsion, the words of someone who is monumentally browned off. It originates from Maurice Metford, who lived in the 16th century and was the first English teacher to resign in a huff when he had too many test papers to mark. As he left his school, he uttered the words, "Ye SATs are ye pits", which became the first recorded Metford.
The candidate, therefore, was quite right in her answer. Romeo does use a Metford when he says: "Love goes toward love, as schoolboys from their books; but love from love, toward school with heavy looks." Full marks to the candidate and examiner for knowing this unfamiliar term.
So perhaps we should not condemn too quickly the idea of having examiners who appear on the surface not to be qualified. One teacher has claimed that someone who marked the English scripts was a postman. He should have plenty of letters after his name, then. I suspect he may be an English teacher who got fed up of being asked to "deliver" the curriculum and decided to deliver letters instead.
He may, however, be just the right person to mark Romeo and Juliet papers, especially as Romeo, eager for news, asks his manservant Balthasar, "News from Verona! - How now, Balthasar? Dost thou not bring me letters from the friar?" Who better than Postman Pat to understand why they didn't arrive till second post on Thursday, even though they had been posted at the main Verona post office with a first-class stamp early on Monday morning.
There must be scope for people from many other jobs to mark national test papers. In fact, they could teach the plays as well, given the impending teacher shortage. How would the Army tackle it? "Right then, Year 9, attention! Standing up straight, facing me. You at the back, yes you Ramsbottom, you dozy little bleeder. Listen to me. Now tonight's homework is, write an essay entitled, 'Is Romeo a long-haired Nancy who spent too much time poncing around under balconies, when he could have been killing people earlier in the play?'" Perhaps this year's key stage 3 English paper can even be conceived in such a way that having unqualified examiners would be a positive advantage. There could be separate questions for the members of different professions to mark, something along these lines: Key stage 3 Shakespeare
Answer any three questions. The marker's profession is in brackets.
1 Comment on what you found to be the most meaty bits of dialogue between Romeo and Juliet (butcher).
2 What are the advantages and disadvantages, in terms of resale value, of having a balcony put on your house? (estate agent).
3 Write a critical account of the way Romeo poisons himself (cocktail mixer).
4 When Romeo says: "But, soft! What light through yonder window breaks?", does this mean that Juliet's family should have had tinted glass? (double-glazing salesman).
5 Does Juliet's speech beginning: "O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?" tell you anything about her eyesight? (optician).
6 Is the best way to get to Verona to go British Airways or Eurotunnel? (travel agent).
7 Discuss the scenes that take place in Juliet's chamber (plumber).
8 Find two Simples and two Metfords (politician).