How can exam boards fix the current GCSE marking mess?

3rd November 2017 at 00:00
The quality and consistency of marking is facing increasing criticism as the move is made to linear GCSE and A levels. Eleanor Busby investigates why the system is under strain and what lies ahead

The increased emphasis on exams in the reformed, more linear, GCSEs and A levels has sharpened the spotlight on the quality of marking.

And there are serious concerns this term, as many pupils’ results in the new GCSEs are improving significantly following re-marks.

But, despite widespread acknowledgement that this year’s exam grades – particularly in English – are experiencing “greater turbulence” than usual, few solutions seem to be on the table.

A working group on building the capacity of examiners, launched in 2015, said in a report in January that an extra 7,000 teachers would be enlisted as examiners to cope with the pressures created by exam reforms.

The group, made up of exam boards and headteachers’ associations, said in its report that teachers’ participation was a “prerequisite” to the system delivering the right results.

But Tes understands that the group has met only once in nine months – despite the introduction of major exam reforms.

And, it has emerged, one of the group’s recommendations for encouraging teachers to become examiners has been dropped because it was unpopular with unions. In the meantime, students in schools across England are seeing their English grades rise, once challenged – in some cases, by more than two grades.

Last month, the Grammar School Heads’ Association (GSHA) met to discuss these concerns. Jim Skinner, chief executive of the GSHA, says the picture being painted around GCSE English “underlies the problems that were there in the initial marking.” The association is also concerned about the marking in art.

“There seems to have been greater turbulence from one year to another than normal,” Skinner says. “There has been cause for concern in terms of the quality and the consistency of marking.”

With many more of the new, linear GCSEs being sat next summer, as well as the second wave of new A levels, concerns around having enough examiners to achieve reliable results are likely to intensify. “It is a problem that is not going to go away – we need some experienced people to look at it, to come up with some proposals to try and get a better longer-term solution,” Skinner adds.

What are the main barriers preventing teachers from examining that need to be overcome?

The report from the working group recognised that workload concerns and short marking windows deterred teachers from marking – but did not offer a clear resolution to the challenges raised.


Teaching unions agree that heavy workloads are putting teachers off. Many teachers simply do not have the time or energy to commit to examining anymore, they say.

Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, says: “Until workload burdens are reduced to a more sustainable level across the system, challenges in respect of marker recruitment from among the current cohort of serving teachers are likely to remain unaddressed.”

In particular, people have suggested that there was a shortage of examiners for English this year.

English teacher Caroline Spalding, who was an examiner for three years, no longer marks because of her high workload. “If you are already working a 50-plus hour week, it is absolutely awful,” she says.

And a number of teachers who marked this summer have told her that they will not be doing it again because of the pressure that was placed on them. “There is a finite pool of examiners because teachers are stressed. It’s an issue that’s going to get worse,” Spalding adds.

Workload is a key concern – but pay may also be putting off potential examiners. On average, a typical examiner can expect to earn around £500 to £1,000 per exam series.

“It is abysmally paid,” says Anne Heavey, education policy adviser of the NEU teaching union. “It is a little bit of extra cash, but it is not a lot – and it is not much per script.”

The costs of higher pay

But if exam boards increased their pay, schools could face higher costs as a result, warns Malcolm Trobe, public affairs director at the Association of School and College Leaders.

“If markers were paid more, that might help,” he says. “But if that means exam fees go up then schools are under pressure. They can’t afford to pay more for exam fees. So you are into a vicious cycle.”

With schools and exam boards facing funding pressures, more pay may be unlikely – and as school budgets are squeezed and the recruitment crisis continues to bite, teachers are unlikely to have a lot of free time to mark. So the main attraction that remains is that it can support continuing professional development (CPD).

But Paula Goddard, a senior examiner and fellow of the Chartered Institute of Educational Assessors, thinks that CPD – which has been frequently promoted by exam boards and headteacher associations as a reason to become an examiner – isn’t enough of an incentive for teachers anymore.

“There is so much information out there for teachers now [from the exam boards] that really this one-time reason why teachers might want to become examiners – that they may gain some secret insight – no longer holds valid,” she says.

Skinner also admits there is no easy fix for the problem. “I think we all recognise the problems that exam boards have in recruiting sufficient, experienced markers,” he says. “But I don’t think that any of us have immediate solutions.”

Michelle Meadows, executive director for strategy, risk and research at Ofqual, says: “We are still collecting data on reviews of marking for the 2017 summer exams, which will be published in December.

“We follow guidance from the Office of National Statistics not to comment on official statistics ahead of publication.”

Tricia Brennan, AQA’s Director of Strategy and Delivery, says: “Schools were happy with the vast majority of our marking in English and every other subject we offer, in a year that saw the biggest changes to GCSEs since they were created.

“A lot of this year’s grade changes in English are due to a complex mix of factors, including schools targeting a broader range of grade boundaries for reviews than previously, in two final exams rather than one.

“No-one likes to see grade changes, so we’ve taken a good, hard look at this summer’s marking and, as a result, we know there weren’t any major issues, but we’ll continue to review and learn.”


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