Over the next few weeks thousands of teachers will be working for rates of pay that hover just above and, in some cases, fall below the proposed national minimum wage of #163;3.60 an hour. They will not be grilling hamburgers or serving at the check-out of their local supermarket, but marking examination papers.
In theory, examiners will have the same rights as other workers when the minimum wage comes in. It will not make any difference if they have teaching jobs: anyone contracted to work for an employer will be entitled to the minimum wage. But examiners who believe they are earning less than #163;3.60 an hour could find that difficult to prove.
The examining boards refuse to estimate how their fees translate into hourly rates. But they do say that their rates vary to reflect the length and difficulty of marking different papers within the same subject.
They also recognise that a history or English paper usually takes longer to mark than, say, a maths paper. So the Associated Examining Board, for example, pays examiners from 27p to #163;1.67 per script for GCSE maths papers, #163;1.01 to #163;1.92 for science papers, and #163;2 to #163;2.35 for English papers.
These rates are reasonable so long as examiners manage to get through half a dozen science papers, or four or five English scripts an hour. But that does not always happen, according to Paul, an external marking co-ordinator for key stage 3 English with Edexcel and a former GCSE moderator with the same board, which takes in both the Business and Technology Education Council and London Examinations.
A member of the second largest teachers' union, the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, which is taking a close look at examiners' pay and workloads, Paul last year received #163;1.78 per pupil for checking GCSE coursework-folders already marked by schools.
Some folders took him as little as 10 minutes to go through, but he reckons the average was 45 minutes. Fees for marking national curriculum tests are slightly higher and have just gone up by a few pence. But since an extra 25p per script that examiners used to get for carrying out clerical checks has been withdrawn, they have seen their income drop by as much as 20p per script in some subjects.
Again, the time it takes to mark some national test papers can bring the hourly rate to well below the minimum wage level. Paul gives the example of the extension papers taken by pupils who are expected to do especially well. "If they are rubbish, it's dead easy, but if they are not, you've got to give each one around half an hour, " he says. At #163;1.02 per script in the case of his own subject, English, this brings the hourly rate to #163;2.04.
So why do teachers give up part of their precious holidays to do such badly-paid work? John, a retired maths teacher who has marked exam papers for 20 years, says: "I find it satisfying. It keeps you in touch with your subject."
Other teachers become examiners for a year or two for their own professional development, and view the money as less important. And though the pay is not good, it can be a lifeline for teachers who do not have permanent, full-time jobs.
Tony, a self-employed private tutor, says there are few ways teachers can earn extra money. "This is one of the options that is easily available. You don't have to keep applying, because once you've done some examining, the boards keep writing to you to ask you to do it again."
All the examiners quoted in this article wished to remain anonymous