I helped ignite the exams marking debate – in 1998!

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In 1998, Hilary Moriarty helped to ignite a debate about marking standards in examinations – a debate that has never really gone away.

There are times when you think the only safe way to navigate the world is from under the cosy folds of a duvet. You get up, notice things, take action, speak out. But you have no idea where the day’s observations will lead. Safer to stay in bed.

Way back in 1998, I engaged with the world in what I thought at the time was a completely righteous way. I spoke up for the principle of exam boards returning marked exam scripts to candidates. Oh boy, where did that lead? To scandal. To the revelations that many of this year’s papers were wrongly marked, some by as many as four or five grades. Not marks – whole, flaming, permanent grades. And you only found out if you challenged the markers, and that cost more an £40 a throw, and how many other papers got the wrong grade but candidates never found out because they didn’t challenge, for reasons of confidence or poverty or whatever?

So now it’s very hard to trust an exam board at all. With anything, least of all your whole future – miss the grade, miss the university place, and how might your entire life be affected? Ask anyone who missed an Oxbridge place and went somewhere else.

It would be presumptuous to believe I was instrumental in the opening up of the secret world of exams, but I was part of the public debate, published in the education press. I felt most part of the discussion when my Education Guardian article generated an invitation to discuss the issue on Newsnight.

I got Kirsty, not Paxman, and we – the exam board spokesman and I – were lucky to get on air at all. We kept slipping down the running order because of breaking news: one item was IRA-related, the other, Clinton’s confession re Monica Lewinsky. Gossip trumps principle every time.

But we did get on, briefly, and I argued for the righteousness of candidates having access to their marked papers, partly because it would show why they had done less well than they expected – a teacher going through a paper could identify problems. 

“Look what you did,” is easier to understand than, “sorry, I never expected any better”.

And partly because teachers had masses to learn from marked papers about how examiners thought, what they really wanted. Useful info for the next cohort of candidates.

What I really didn’t expect was crap marking. Occasional errors, maybe. Ditto from the candidates.

But not a horror story of apparently often inexpert, and sometimes downright inadequate marking. And why not? Because I used to mark. And I had enormous faith in the system, in my fellow markers, in my chief examiners, scrutinising my work scrupulously. And I worked in English Lit, notoriously subjective territory.

I do not pretend to know why things have apparently gone wrong – much of the subjectivity has been removed, with teachers and candidates well aware of the buttons to push to match exam boards’ requirements. 

I have seen classes where model essays written by the teacher are studied and dissected – “In the first paragraph you must link the two texts…” If this means many of the A level essays, for instance, are broadly similar to the point of being uniform, well that’s what the exam board asked. Presumably giving credit for it is a lot easier than in the Old Days, when there really were no specific buttons, not for teachers, not for students. 

So if we now have a bit of a mess in Exam World, and I contributed to that mess, pushed the first brick out of the wall having no idea where the wall would fall, I can only apologise. But maybe if there is a mess in Exam World, better we should know than believe all is well and trust examiners with young lives.

  • Hilary Moriarty taught English for 25 years, is a former examiner at A level, GCSE and CSE, former director of the Boarding Schools’ Association, and founding partner of the Education Practice at Greenings International.


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