Race against time: Schools struggle to find exam invigilators

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:

The race is on for schools to find enough invigilators for this term’s GCSE and A level examinations, which begin next week.

Invigilators are often retired teachers and schools are facing recruitment problems because of high levels of demand as well as concerns from invigilators about Covid transmission in exam halls.

The problem is being compounded as schools are reporting more requests than usual for students to take their exams in rooms away from the main exam hall due to increased levels of anxiety and stress.

A survey from the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) finds that 38% of the respondents have not been able to find enough invigilators.

And 78% report having received more requests than usual for students to take exams in separate rooms, while 82% report higher levels of stress among students than usual.

The survey took place from May 4 to 6 and the majority of the 527 respondents were from mainstream secondary schools.

For most students, this term’s GSCE and A level exams will be the first time they have faced high-stakes assessment, and many will be lacking exam hall experience, heightening levels of anxiety.

The concerns echo those raised in a recent episode of the SecEd Podcast (2022) which offered expert advice on how we can support students to overcome exam anxiety. SecEd has also published a guide based on the podcast’s discussions.

The ASCL survey reports that the raised levels of stress and anxiety have led to problems with student absence, more challenging behaviour, and a rise in incidents of self-harm.

Several of the schools responding say problems are worse with A level students as they did not have the experience of taking GCSE exams because they were cancelled due to Covid.

Some of the interventions the schools are employing to support students include increased support with revision techniques, extra counselling and pastoral support, wellbeing sessions, and additional parental engagement.

ASCL said that schools will “do their best to accommodate requests”, but the situation is placing “a great deal of pressure on available space and invigilators”. It says that free Covid testing for students sitting exams could be one way of mitigating the concerns.

The survey also found that the level of Covid infections is a significant concern for 14% of the respondents. This year, there is a 10-day gap between exams in the same subject to try and mitigate the impact of Covid infection on pupils, but Geoff Barton, ASCL general secretary, said the situation shows just how precarious our system of terminal examination is.

He said: “This survey reveals the extremely challenging circumstances facing students, schools and colleges as they embark upon the first full set of public exams in three years.

“We have to question whether it is right to continue to subject young people to such a huge number of high-stakes terminal exams at GCSE as is the case in the current system. Stress and anxiety were already problems pre-pandemic. It must surely be possible to slim down the exam system and make it more proportionate and humane.

“It is also clear that there are sufficient difficulties in recruiting enough invigilators. It would obviously reassure these staff if free Covid testing was available for exam students and we once again appeal to the government to make this simple and obvious provision.”

Exam proposals for 2023

While all thoughts are on this summer’s exam period, Ofqual this week has published its initial plans to return to normal in 2023 and remove all adaptations that have been put in place this year (Ofqual, 2022). A short statement said that for 2022/23:

  • Adjustments to fieldwork and practical science requirements in some GCSEs, AS and A levels will be removed, returning to “the usual arrangements” for 2022/23.
  • The choice of topics in GCSE English literature, history and ancient history and a choice of content in GCSE geography put in place for this year’s exams will be removed next year: “For 2023, the Department for Education confirms the return to full subject content coverage for those GCSE subjects.”
  • Adaptations for vocational and technical qualifications will be removed as well.

Qfqual’s statement said: “This means that schools and colleges have the information they need to plan their teaching of the required content and to provide non-exam assessments.”

The exams watchdog does, however, confirm that before it finalises the arrangements for 2023 it will review, alongside the DfE, whether the provision of exam aids, such as formulae sheets, and advance information to support students’ revision, will be required.

It adds: “Our intention is to return to the carefully designed and well-established pre-pandemic assessment arrangements as quickly as possible, given they are the best and fairest way of assessing what students know and can do.”

For GCSEs, AS and A levels, Ofqual is to consider the approach to grading for 2023 in light of outcomes in 2022.

It added: “Ofqual will also ask exam boards to look carefully at the design of the exam timetable for next year in the light of experience this year, to see if the increased spacing between subjects in the exam timetable should be retained.”

Mr Barton added: “We welcome the announcement of this information in that it allows schools and colleges to plan their teaching accordingly. However, we are concerned about the decision to remove the choice of topics and content in some GCSE subjects as one of the mitigations for the disruption caused by Covid.

“The students who will take their GCSEs next year have been heavily impacted by the pandemic and it is likely that Covid will continue to cause periods of absence between now and summer 2023. It would surely have made more sense to keep this mitigation in place.

“We look forward to decisions over other mitigations such as exam aids and advance information in due course. We would remind Ofqual and the government about the very significant level of disruption these students have experienced when they come to make these decisions.”

  • Ofqual: Guidance: Subject content and assessment arrangements in the academic year 2022 to 2023, May 2022: https://bit.ly/3N4QhEr
  • SecEd Podcast: The SecEd Podcast: Beating exam anxiety – how to prepare your students for their exams, March 2022: https://bit.ly/3D6Nt5T
  • SecEd: Guide To: Beating exam anxiety, March 2022: https://bit.ly/37g1T83


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