Miss Remiss

It’s gearing up to the very busy season again. GCSEs, huge translation projects, painting, gardening, cleaning, sometimes I wonder where my days go and why those daylight hours are replaced by night time ones. Bar the GCSE marking – which I’m doing this year out of a sense of duty and obligation – it’s all pleasant work, so I don’t mind any of it.

As for the GCSE, we used to all mark paper scripts. We’d get a huge pile that we’d work through and the pile would diminish until you posted your last script off. For a team leader, the work just begins then. You have 8 people in your team and you sample their scripts to check their marking. Sometimes it’s easy – sometimes, it’s easier than shelling peas (which I didn’t find so easy this week…) – and sometimes you end up remarking 500 scripts that have been marked badly to ensure they get the correct mark. About 20% get sampled – people mark 500 and you pick out about 100 to look at and look through. You also get them at the marking review, where we used to sit in darkened, windowless rooms for so long in the summer that it turned me into Hannibal Lecter. I just wanted a room with a view. And so in the end, you might check about 50% of your team’s work for weaker markers, and about 10% for your better markers.

Last year, it all went paperless. I was no longer a lucrative team leader. And when you read on, you’ll see why that was a good thing. All the scripts are scanned and put online. You don’t ever mark a whole script, so in theory, with seven questions, there will be seven examiners.

You still have the same number to mark, except this time I have seven questions rather than two. That in itself is a shift in quantity. Then you have to double-mark two of them – we used to do it concurrently – so that’s actually nine questions instead of two. And you get the same amount of money for a paper that was 1 hour 30 mins as you do for one that is 2 hours and 15 mins.

It gets worse, apart from the pay drop.

I used to mark in 5 slots when I taught full time. 5:30 – 6:00 am. 7:00-7:30 am. 12-12:30 pm. 7-8 pm and 8:30-9:30 pm. That’s about four hours, plus about another two at weekends. In three weeks, 30 hours a week, just about feasible, for about £1,000. It used to pay for my summer holiday. As a team leader, for supervising, leading training and spending a week and a half in a darkened room, the pay was about £4,000.

However, last year, I was maxing out at six hours a day over four weeks to do the same number of scripts. That’s 42 hours a week – another 12 on top of your work  – another full-time job, in fact, and another week of 42 hours. It’s almost double the time. For £800. 168 hours of work. That’s just over minimum wage in England.

People, quite rightly, ask why I do it.

My answer is this: if I don’t, my teaching is ineffective. I’m not teaching to the exam paper, which is what my clients want. It sharpens my focus, makes me an expert at what’s what and gives me an edge. I can’t understand how teaching and assessment can be divided, and I don’t think they should be. Assessment is a measure of learning. Learning is what teaching is about. There shouldn’t be one without the other. Bizarre, but there it is.

At first I was mad, too, that my cushy team leader number had been taken away. I was an A grade marker – good at what I did. I should have been too. I’ve been doing it since 1998. This is my 14th year.

We were promised teams and choice. I got neither. I asked for English Literature, I got put on English Language, on a paper I don’t feel as comfortable marking. I would have liked a team. I’m a good team leader, or so I think. I’m way better than some team leaders I’ve had who haven’t been able to organise themselves or ‘lead’ in a confident way on the paper.

My team leader last year was a saint. A bloody marvellous woman. I shall explain why.

Firstly, all markers are ‘paired marked’. That means every so often – like 2 times in 10 scripts, somebody else will mark the same script. They could be an E grade marker about to be sacked, or the boss. If your marks don’t match, then you are both stopped for a while. Then a team leader looks at the dispute and ‘resolves’ it by giving a mark they think is appropriate. I usually get ‘adjudicated’ twice in an hour – that means I’m stopped twice from progressing until the dispute has been resolved. More often than not – 99 in a 100 times last year – I was ‘right’ and the other person was wrong. Presumably they were stopped and I carried on. And it kept happening. And kept happening. The great marker has to double mark as many as the crummy examiner. It’s even, but pointless. The crummy marker needs more support; the good marker less so.

It gets better – I was stopped four times in four weeks – not a bad record after all, I found out. Some people were stopped 20 times. All it means is that the mark is slightly different.

Now, just to put it in perspective, English, like Art or PE or Pottery, is bloody difficult to mark. One man’s 19 is another man’s 18. I’ve seen 40 senior examiners with more than 600 years of experience between them bickering about whether something was an 18 or a 19. And then the principal examiner talked to another principal and they decided it was a 22. That’s it. End of discussion. Generally, though, marks go up, not down, and we usually agree with a fair degree of certainty. Not particularly reassuring, but there you have it.

So a mark here or there is not much to split hairs over.

But it shatters your confidence. And as an examiner, confidence is crucial. Once you start questioning your 18s and wondering if they are 15s, 16s, 17s and 19s, then you might as well stop.

It gets worse. I was stopped last year by a team leader who’d marked 100 question 6s. I’d marked 1,200 and not been stopped. Now, who’s better? The ‘team leader’ who has marked 100 and been checked 10 times, or me who’s marked 1,200 and been checked 120 times? It makes no sense.

Not only that, but the team leader gets paid a paltry, paltry sum – ridiculously low. It was more profitable to be a lowly marker on English Literature than it was to be the big boss. I get to do my six hours and stop. They have to solve all the disputes as well as marking their own. That adds a good couple of hours to the day.

Plus, you have to phone everyone to give them feedback, every single time they get stopped. You have to hand-hold and bolster confidence. All for less money than a lowly examiner.

It’s insanity.

This year doesn’t promise to be any better.

What’s that expression about paying peanuts? Getting monkeys? I think if monkeys were paid what we were, the WWF would be involved.

So, I’m sad to say this might be my last year marking. I’m sad about it because I truly enjoyed it. AQA had buildings in the University of Manchester, and being an examiner was a thing that brought great kudos. Unfortunately, I’ve made more money from revision ebooks than from marking, and they took me 40 hours to write. I have loved being part of that bigger team. The chief examiner was a wonderful man, as is the new principal examiner for this paper, and the chief examiner over all the papers. But turning the exam boards into businesses not charities has made them cut costs, cut corners and value systems over people.

But, as with everything, the people are the thing that make or break the success of an endeavour. Here, systems have been prioritised at the expense of people.

The trouble is, once I stop marking, I won’t be able to mark. There’s no going back.

But unless there is a significant shift, I just can’t afford to work for minimum wage, no matter how many deserving GCSE students there are and no matter what a wonderful woman the chief examiner is and no matter how much it benefits my students.

And then the Daily Telegraph and the Government are wondering why examiners are making ends meet by running courses and writing textbooks. Hmmm. I wonder why.

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