Who's watching the watchers?

20th June 1997 at 01:00
Of all the joys offered by teaching, surely invigilation is the last one that is complete and unalloyed. Where else in the busy week can you empty your mind of worries, admire the personal paraphernalia that clutters pupil desks at exam time, walk vacantly round the hall and yet find the clock has barely edged on by two minutes?

For terminal boredom things don't come much better. Little wonder that one of the invigilators - a retired minister - fell asleep. The SCE Gaelic candidates were too busy translating a waulking song from Partick to notice - but my sympathies are entirely with the padre - invigilation lends itself to somnolence.

For principal teachers setting exams in recent years, the doctrine of assessment for all has had the worrying tendency to mean disruption for all. Pupils previously unused to examinations have been shoehorned into an often unsuitable exam diet. Make the exam too easy and they are finished long before the end. Make it too hard and the rolling eyes and fidgeting bodies threaten an early interruption to others who are still engrossed in their work.

The problem is where to place potential troublemakers. If they are located in the school hall, outnumbered by five times as many genuine exam candidates, then the hope is that their inattentiveness will be inhibited by the concentration of the others. A high-risk strategy. If, on the other hand, they are segregated in a separate room, the hope would be that the teacher in charge could cope with the mass rumblings of discontent that might emerge.

Even something as simple as collecting in papers at the end of the exam can cause mayhem. A clear instruction to stop writing, with no one getting out of their seat, and the last person in each row bringing down the papers to the front, could usually meet the problem of collection. Yet every year I used to watch the chaos induced by a teacher who gave several instructions at once, none of which were followed, and the resultant shambles regularly took 20 minutes to resolve. Perhaps teacher education institutes could incorporate advice on invigilation into their courses - no knitting, reading, marking papers.

Some years ago my wife was 10 minutes into the invigilation of a German listening exam when repeated scrabblings at the door could no longer be ignored. Switching off the tape she opened the door to find the deputy and an assistant head in the act of taping a "Quiet: exam in progress" notice to the door. Some years before that, sitting her own A-level French exam in the school library, the peace was interrupted by the ringing of the fire alarm. The matronly invigilator told the girls to ignore it and carry on, but after five minutes she was evicted by an irate policeman who burst through the door and ordered everybody out into the playground.

One of my most uncomfortable experiences was the overzealous invigilator assigned to the room where I was scribing for a Standard grade pupil. My main problem was deciding (it was after lunch and in a stuffy room) if I had fallen asleep between reading the interpretation question and waiting, interminably, for the pupil's answer. But the invigilator, conscious of her office, sat about 12 inches from us both, checking rigorously for any sign of furtive communication.

Eventually, reassured, she moved a little way back, and I was able to resume my state of suspended animation. Aromatherapy, flotation tanks, foot massage - who needs them when invigilation is on offer?

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