As always at this time of year I spare a thought for the teenagers sitting their exams. I also spare a thought for those families living with teenagers sitting their exams. Lastly, this year, I also spare a thought for those teachers who mark the darn things. I say "this year" as this time is the first time in about a decade that I am not among them. In fact I marked for twice as many years as I taught.
Normally sometime in the last week of May I answer the door to the parcelforce man and take receipt of a quantity of post that reaches from the floor to the middle of my thigh. GCSE English Literature is normally first on the GCSE calendar as it is so complicated to mark, so whilst the candidates are still concentrating on their other subjects English teachers across the country are just settling down to tackle one of the hardest subjects to nail to a specific grade. The candidates sitting the exam for my board answer just two questions, but these answers are essays of literary criticism with all the difficulty in standardisation that that entails.
The good news, if you or child have sat your GCSE English Literature this year, is that the marking system is very impressive. In the first week after receiving 400+ scripts your examiner will read the mark scheme which is a document at least 50 pages long, and which will help them attribute to the right grade to your efforts. They will also check the piles of scripts against the documents from the exam board to ensure that they have all the right essays from the right schools and from the right candidates. Usually one dodo school examiner has sent the wrong tier (GCSE being spilt into Foundation and Higher tiers which are loosely equivalent to the old CSE and O level respectively; I mark the higher tier), or otherwise done something odd with the entries, and now is the time we sort that out and every script ends up exactly where it should be. Then we mark about twenty scripts in pencil as preparation for thinking about the big training day that normally happens in half term.
So it often was, that on the first Tuesday of this half term I would tackle the journey from the Yorkshire Dales to Manchester. Scary traffic - I loath the M60! Meanwhile senior examiners have been discussing the questions and a large sample of the scripts, and then setting the standards. At the training day we are allocated a group where, with up to eight other teachers, we are taught the standard by a senior examiner. We read, mark and discuss, and by the end of the day have just about got it. For the next week we are closely monitored and exchange several selections of scripts with our senior examiner and if you are not getting it right you have to send more of your marked scripts for review. Eventually, about a week after the training day and nearly two weeks after the exam, if the senior staff think you are doing it right you are cleared for take off and get to mark with a red pen. Even then several samples of scripts are sent in the middle of the marking process and at the end. As a teacher marking for the first time you have to under go additional training too, but old hands generally are left to get on with it for a while now. Believe it or not the senior examiners' checking of examiners' work is also monitored from on high, by even more senior examiners endearingly known as "Apes" (assistant principle examiners), above them all sits the Principle Examiner, all cross checking the work like fury.
What amazed me the first time I went to an examiners' standardisation meeting was how convinced the senior examiners were, that despite the difficulties, a universal standard could be found and applied across this difficult, subjective exam. The senior staff were all impressive and convincing. As current or former English teachers, of course, they were highly literate and good communicators; they were also good teachers themselves, usually drawn from senior staff (heads of department or deputy heads). The training on the day left assistant examiners feeling both the weight of the responsibility but also confident that standardisation could be achieved. The sampling and checking of examiner's work, together with clear feedback to the examiner of where faults in the marking might lie, all ensured the standardisation was achieved. It is never 100% accurate of course in a subjective essay based subject, but the procedures are in place to make it as fair as is humanly possible.
So if you have just sat your GCSE English Literature rest assured that the script you handed in is in good hands, and the teacher marking it will be monitored closely.
If you are marking this year for the first time it is a bit daunting, especially if you are a fairly new teacher. Your senior examiner will probably ring you a lot to check you're ok. The first 100 scripts are the worst, followed by the last 100! The middle two hundred, when you've got your eye in, and you are flying along I always enjoyed. Honestly! The kids, even if they have been a pain in the proverbial for their own staff for their entire school career, tend to try hard in exams so you are seeing the best of them. Some of the A and B grade answers will delight you. Even at 10pm after a full day at work and two hours evening marking someone will give you an answer on To Kill a Mocking Bird or Lord of the Flies that will have you re-reading it just for the sheer pleasure of watching someone do something well. Once you get in that last hundred it is hard: end of term, you're tired and want to get it finished but you get there in the end. And from a parent or student point of view, because of this obvious tiredness towards the end of each examiner's work, senior examiners always call in the last 50 scripts from each marker for double checking.
In a few months time each examiner will receive a written report on their marking with a grade (yes, A-E!) on the standard of reliability and accuracy they reached in applying the agreed standards. If you're not good enough you have you won't be asked to mark again. Only examiners who consistently achieve A grades over several consecutive years will be asked to apply for senior examiner roles.
Not all bureaucratic systems work but this one, considering the odds is not bad at all. So as I look towards my first June in ages with no GCSE script marking to do I will think of those tackling the job with a little envy, but also with a little gloat as I relish the rare freedom.