Who guards the guards now?

17th June 2005 at 01:00
The workforce agreement will mean an end to teachers routinely overseeing exams, writes Paul Blum

The 2005 exam season will be the last time teachers can be used to invigilate before the workforce remodelling agreement takes effect.

As a school senior management team, we realised that its recommendations - that teachers should not routinely invigilate exams - would also apply to practice runs such as mock Sats or GCSEs. We needed to consider how we were going to meet the new arrangements without compromising the traditional smooth running of our exams.

Our school, Islington Green in north London, is a typical inner- city secondary. Most of our pupils do not have the language and literacy skills to make them self-assured exam candidates. Major public exams can cause them even more anxiety than the rest of the student population. Nervousness can erupt in restive behaviour or lead them to make careless mistakes, such as answering the wrong section or not putting their hand up to say they have been given the wrong tier of a paper.

Having the pupils' regular subject teachers in the exam hall has always been an important part of our successful routine. The pupils are reassured by having familiar teachers there, who have always made sure that the right paper gets in front of the right pupil and that the many pupils with learning difficulties get to start the appropriate question. It has kept the behaviour in the exam hall more focused and stable over the years.

The remodelling agreement suggests creating a "cadre of trained and paid invigilators" by temporarily hiring an external seasonal invigilator team.

To us, this advice did not feel sensible.

Supply teachers can have a very hard time at Islington Green because the children react negatively to unfamiliar faces, so the chances of getting temps to lead vital exam sessions seemed very poor. The time spent trying to recruit such a team, or the extra money spent on getting an agency to do it, seemed potentially expensive and unreliable.

A more sensible suggestion was to recruit learning support staff from within the school. However, several practical hurdles needed serious consideration. Our natural recruiting ground was teaching assistants, but they have vital roles in the school that aren't easily dropped in an exam season. They work in our inclusion unit for EBD pupils, a facility that cannot be casually disbanded. In addition, they already take some behaviourally challenging pupils out of the biggest exams, so that no "meltdowns" occur in the main exam hall during maths, English and science.

What we will end up with is a compromise between several invigilation models, trying to keep a subject specialist input from teachers themselves.

Paul Blum is a member of the senior management team at Islington Green school with responsibility for examinations


1 Ask the head of each subject to maintain a role as "subject expert" at the start of the exam, checking the pupils are doing the right papers and answering any specific questions relating to the exam for the first 15 minutes. Then sitting in the exam hall to do other "teacherly" work such as marking and preparation, rather than invigilation. Workforce remodelling implies that this is fine. We will still draw on the support of heads of year at the beginning and end of exams, when creating the right ambience is absolutely vital.

2 Create a dedicated, trained team of non-teaching staff, led by the exams officer - in our case, a teacher whose specific responsibilities have ruled him out of the workforce agreement on exams. The team will be a mix of learning mentors and teachers we have employed to spend part of the timetable doing cover. The pupils know them as familiar faces.

3 On the days of major exams such as maths and English, when we need nine invigilators, we will fall back on the senior management team to help. What isn't yet finalised is how to use all that freed-up teacher time. Teachers can be given extra contact in classroom instead of invigilation. I suspect some of our teachers will end up cursing the workload agreement and hankering after some time "day-dreaming" down the aisles of the exam hall again.

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