Schools are heading towards an organisational "catastrophe" over exams because of changing working conditions and attitudes towards exam officers among colleagues, a report has claimed.
The role, which has been increasingly professionalised over the past decade, is now seeing its status in decline in many schools because of budgetary constraints and government education reforms, in particular changes to the annual exams timetable.
A study from the Examination Officers’ Association (EOA) found worrying changes in the way exam officers are being treated and viewed in schools in the past two years. While some report no major differences to their roles, others believe they are slowly being stripped of their responsibilities which are being passed on to colleagues on an ad hoc basis.
In some schools, the exam officer’s hours are being cut to save money, leaving them less time to fulfil all their tasks and adding to stress and workload. Some are only being paid in term-time.
The findings come just days before the High Court is due to reveal its judgement in the GCSE English marking controversy. Headteachers believe that thousands of candidates were awarded lower grades than they deserved because awarding bodies shifted grade boundaries.
The report said that the fall-out from last summer’s results had created “additional work and anxiety” among exam officers in many schools.
In the past 10 years, exam officers have enjoyed a growth in importance as the sheer scale of entries in exams grew and students were able to do re-sits throughout the year. However, this is set to change as the system moves to an end-of-year testing regime.
The study said: “The simple question one has to ask is – how does the system expect to deliver all this change when it continues to unpick the very community, who now after all these years of hard work, have the expertise, knowledge and commitment that will secure that very exam system everyone wants?
“There is a catastrophic event just waiting to happen in reference to exam delivery and the evidence we are confronted with suggests there will be no grand government rescue as occurred under the last government with the National Assessment Agency (NAA) modernisation-style programme.
“The impact of multiple exams practices and procedures from over 180 awarding organisations looks like continuing unabated alongside the fact that there are going to be changes in working practices related to moves away from modular to linear style exams for general qualifications.
“This survey is beginning to record deep-seated damage to this established community which, if it remains unchecked, will drag us back to the environment experienced before the NAA modernisation programme.”
It added that exam officers needed to be “valued appropriately” if they were to meet the demands of changes to the exams system being proposed by the government.
Andrew Harland, EOA chief executive, said schools are collectively spending around
£22 million in late fees because students are not being entered within the deadlines set by the awarding bodies.
He continued: “This is a huge sum of money that schools cannot afford to lose, and yet the situation is likely to deteriorate as exam officers’ working conditions decline and more pressure is put upon them.
“In the past 10 years, the exam officer community has got its act together and it is a role that has evolved very effectively in schools. With these changes approaching in the exam system schools need this level of competence and continuity more than ever, which is why it is so worrying that our members are reporting deteriorating working conditions in their schools.”
He added: “Exam fees make up the second biggest financial outlay in secondary schools after salaries, and yet exam officers earn only £12,000 to £15,000 a year. It is a false economy to jeopardise the standing of this important group of school workers.”
The study found that many exam officers are experiencing increased hostility from teaching colleagues, which was blamed on constant and sudden changes being imposed on the profession by ministers filtering through to support staff.
Overall, nearly a quarter of exam officers admitted they planned to, or were considering, leaving their posts, bringing potential instability to their schools, with a risk that the roles would be passed on to colleagues who lacked expertise.
“To be blunt, many experienced exam office staff would leave their posts tomorrow if they had somewhere else to go,” the report said.
“Many feel the environment in which they work has deteriorated, the awarding organisation burden is increasing and the recent government announcements suggest an unpicking of this essential role with the closing down of exam slots throughout the year.”
It said a “cultural change” was needed in the way exam officers are viewed and treated in schools.