The challenges facing our exams officers

Written by: Andrew Harland | Published:
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"For the 2016 survey there was an eight per cent return on the 3,000 registered EOA members and ...

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The 2016 annual survey of the Examination Officers’ Association focuses on the role of exams officers and the challenges they face. Andrew Harland offers his commentary on some of the issues raised in the report

The Examination Officers’ Association (EOA) has been undertaking independent surveys since 2000/01 to help provide a greater insight into the exams delivery sector. For the 2016 survey there was an eight per cent return on the 3,000 registered EOA members and non-members who were invited to participate. The survey focus included the role of the exam office in centres and some of the key challenges they face.

Access Arrangements

The Equality Act (2010) is encouraging greater engagement from SEN students in the public exam and assessment process, especially around GCSE English and maths. The survey finds that this development, while of course welcome, has put more pressure on centres to provide greater levels of support through the Joint Council for Qualifications’ (JCQ) Access Arrangements process.

However, with limitations on the use of assistive technology to support AAs, centres continue to struggle with providing more readers, scribes and individual support in order to comply with all the JCQ regulations while not compromising the personal needs of their students.

The key JCQ ethos of maintaining a student’s “normal way of working” as they take their exams is being fully supported by the exams office community because it pushes the growing problem over AAs and assistive technology back into the classroom, creating a foundation upon which evidence of need can be more effectively collected, with this becoming open and transparent to everyone in the exams system.

Workload up/budgets down

There is a trend towards a decline in the exam officer post as a standalone role due to increasing budgetary constraints. Exams staff continue to be asked to take on additional duties (up from 14 per cent of respondents in 2012/13 to 18 per cent in 2014/15).

The survey finds that more joint exams office and data management roles are being created, up from eight per cent in 2012/13 to 13 per cent in 2014/15. This combined role needs different skill-sets and therefore the training of exams office professionals needs to meet that challenge.

Salaries

Any increases in salaries over the years have often been associated with the taking on of additional roles, and not for the increased exams workload of exams officers. The survey found that the proportion of exams office staff earning in the £25,000-plus salary bracket was up from 11 per cent (2012/13) to 21 per cent in 2014/15. When the EOA first started to lobby about salaries back in 2004, the average wage was around £15,000.

Examination errors

The findings reveal an increase in experienced exams office staff being challenged over mistakes – some have lost their jobs. The isolationist culture that prevails within the exams community has not helped. As experienced staff go, in some cases, their role is being redistributed among other inexperienced administrative staff, which will put additional stress on the system.

Squeezed staff

The survey shows that the exams office role is being squeezed into fewer term-time contracts. Responses capture a trend across the country that staffing numbers are low, with staff being asked to work longer hours. Despite this, the paying of overtime has been reduced from 55 per cent in 2012/13 to 14 per cent in 2014/15 and the offer of time in lieu has rocketed, up to 62 per cent in 2014/15 from eight per cent in 2012/13 (although many report a lack of opportunity to take it).

The exams office community is a loyal and committed workforce. Despite all the pressures, they maintain an effective system. But what if these people left or were ill at crucial times? The EOA message to centres is about providing contingency to cover their holistic needs, which avoids compromising learner needs and complies effectively with externally operated governance through the JCQ and Federation of Awarding Bodies (there is no doubt that adjustments to some of their practices and procedures, through clearer documentation, would help to reduce workload in centres).

CPD

Over the years, the exams office community has often complained about the lack of opportunity to access appropriate CPD to support their wide-ranging roles.

The problem is not that there is lack of targeted training related to their role, but more about the style and accessibility of what’s on offer, which comes mainly from awarding organisations facilitating their own products and services.

Good as it maybe, this style of training has a tendency to focus on getting centres to comply with individual systems and practices from different awarding organisations, which are then portrayed to centres as a unified exam system through the JCQ regulations and guidance documents.

But exams office staff deal with both general and vocational qualifications attached to hundreds of different awarding organisations, each with their own practices and processes. So no one awarding organisation can in reality represent the whole exam delivery system.

The contribution from awarding organisations is therefore only part of the training solution. If exams officers are to function more effectively they will need alternative CPD which services the internal demands of working and developing as part of a successful delivery team operating an externally driven exams system.

Customer service to centres

Despite all the changes and pressures on the education and exams system, the exams office community generally feels that awarding organisations, also under pressure, are still maintaining good levels of service. However, the over-reliance on awarding organisations to provide all the external and internal support for the exam office community needs to be reviewed by all the key stakeholders.

Some conclusions

In view of all the pressures, teaching staff and senior leaders across the country need to have in place a secure and established exams office staff, who are appropriately trained and supported.

However, budgets are tight and therefore the approach of the EOA is to encourage exams office personnel to be more proactive in building a more cooperative environment among their teaching, SENCOs and senior leaders, so they are not isolated and can share the workload.

Exams office staff need to promote their own self-supportive professional community within their own centres because they may no longer get the same access and support from existing providers, who may also have to implement cuts in services.

Awarding organisations’ practices and procedures have a direct impact on workload, costs and resourcing in centres and therefore should be supervised more closely by the regulator Ofqual, as such directives will play a part in maintaining stability in exams delivery across all types of centres.

  • Andrew Harland is the CEO of the Examination Officers’ Association, a professional body and registered charity. Download the survey report at www.examofficers.org.uk


Comments
"For the 2016 survey there was an eight per cent return on the 3,000 registered EOA members and non-members who were invited to participate". So based on these figures, how can this be a representative view of exams officers ? It would seem to be more the opinion of the article writer and not people who actually do this pivotal role.
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