I began examining – English Lang and Lit – in the early days of what became 10 years out of the classroom, raising a family.
I was able to mark when babies slept, and 300 or 400 scripts were actually easier to squeeze into three weeks then than they were when I was back in the classroom.
The experience helped me get back: I’d kept my hand in while officially “out”, I was up to speed on what examiners were looking for. Indeed, when I joined schools doing exams I had not taught before, I examined for the street-cred in the new staffroom.
I believed examining made me really useful to both colleagues and candidates, like a veteran coming back from the trenches. For instance, I had been firmly reprimanded for once saying of a thin last answer on an otherwise very strong paper that this was a good candidate but a poor time-keeper, so he deserved some leniency on this last answer.
Wrong. As the chief examiner pointed out, I knew nothing about the candidate or his knowledge of the books. Maybe he had written all he could recall on the last book, then twiddled his thumbs till time was up. No leniency. Mark what’s on the page. Back in school, we devised a blanket rule for examinees – give each question equal time; but if you slip up, answer the last question with as many bullet points as you can.
You may say such advice was common sense. But you teach in a world where exam boards have for years been telling you exactly what to tell every student, whereas I began my career in a world where exam boards were akin to MI5 in their secrecy. Giving them what they wanted was educated guesswork. In my early – and even middle – career, no-one knew quite what examiners wanted unless they had been an examiner.
In the olden days, most of us trawled the last few years’ papers to try to second-guess examiners. If madness in Macbeth came up last year, it was unlikely this year. Every now and then, you came a cropper, and suspected pure mischief on the part of the exam setter: a GCE O level question asking for a thorough discussion of the Porter’s scene (all of two pages in our text) reduced some of my candidates to tears.
You work in a time when candidates expect you to prepare them very thoroughly not just on your subject, but also on the exam. I saw yesterday a poster in a school which declared that 50 per cent of exam success was in exam technique, only 30 per cent depended on knowledge of subject. What do the examiners want? What points will get the marks? And since exam success has of late become absolutely necessary for everyone in the business, there has been an explosion of information about what to say and how it will be marked.
Candidates, parents and teachers want passes – future lives depend on it. Heads want everyone to pass – the very life of the school can depend on it. Exam boards want successful candidates – their business depends on it. The government wants success so they can brag about standards of education rising – their re-election may depend on it.
So the slide away from teachers saying “they could ask you anything so let’s teach and learn everything”, to examiners saying “let’s tell you what we want, then all you have to do is plate it up” has been demonstrable. And, it appears, dangerous for standards.
The government has woken up to the torrent of information replacing the lofty secrecy, and it appears they hope to stem this tide – no more examiners’ seminars for all and take us back to the golden age of candidates going into the exams armed only with what they know of the subject.
If they succeed, it’s just possible that the only way you will be able to find out what examiners want is to become one yourself. And if you did, would that give your candidates an unfair advantage and actually be classed as cheating?
Hilary Moriarty taught English for 25 years in comprehensive, grammar and independent schools.