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On your marks, it's Sats time

The wisdom of Henry Walpole

The Sats countdown has begun and yet there's a spring in my step. This year I'm forgoing the horrors of being a science marker for the first time in a decade.

My introduction to standard assessment tasks began as a teaching student when a headteacher told me she had accidentally opened a box of papers and could I teach Year 6 the water cycle?

I suppose that was "accidental" in the same way teachers always "accidentally" lose those unmarked work folders at the end of term. It was a Catholic school, so I am guessing a quick confession eased her guilt at the 95 per cent pass results.

Before you begin marking, all markers have to attend a lengthy session at which they are told, repeatedly, how tough the marking will be. ("For question 2C, we can only accept 'electricity' and it must be phonetically correct.") The teams you work in are always a mixture of new and experienced markers and there is always someone earnest who wants to discuss every last detail, ignoring others' subtle signs such as yawning, checking watches and wails of "Shut up. We want to go home!"

Shortly after Sats week finishes, the brown sacks start to roll in. If you get a slew from inner-city schools, you are in luck, as many of the papers will simply have a scrawled exhortation to "giv me a gud mrk" on page one and the other pages are blank. These are easy to mark.

All Year 6 teachers are given instructions on to how to check papers, complete mark sheets and put everything in alphabetical order before posting. Invariably, at least one of the sacks I open every year contains a mix of maths and science papers, old TES supplements, a squashed muffin and a handwritten note from a teacher saying that Stacey's hamster died on the morning of the test, so could I up her to a level 4.

As the marking process gets underway, the task progresses from novelty to boredom to the "I can't take this anymore" stage. When I reach this point, I usually have to resist the temptation to forge "Mr Smith is a twat" in a child's handwriting on a paper before returning the parcel to Mr Smith's school.

Of course, some children's answers can still lift your spirits. I once marked one based on a diagram of a small plant growing in the shadow of a huge oak. "Why won't the plant grow?" "Because it is a drawing." Or how about: "Why does Omar think it is not a good idea to smoke?" "Because he is gay."

Finally, invariably just as you are reaching the end, you will receive a panicked call from your team leader. "It's all changed! For question 2C, we can accept 'elecktrick', 'sparky thing' or the spelling 'e-z-t'. You have to go back and re-mark!" By then it's too late. Parcelforce is booked; my expenses sheet (300 rolls of sticky tape, red pens, osteopath sessions to cure the back strain from lugging around huge sacks) is posted. Now, just the reports left to do I More from Henry in a fortnight

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