No points for learning

Marking schemes are an admission of failure, says Felipe Fernández-Armesto

July 24, 2008

Write nothing but "Fuck off" on your English GCSE paper, according to recent press reports, and you will get 5 marks, provided you spell it correctly. Add an exclamation and the tally of marks rises to 7.5.

It is hard to know what is most disturbing about this. Some believers in the improving effects of education, the propriety of exams and the inherent goodness of young people are likely to find the whole scenario dispiriting. Is it really necessary to anticipate such a rude and pointless response from examinees? Is anyone who actually sits an exam likely to have no more than an expletive to offer? Is this a case of low expectations inviting their own fulfilment?

Some traditionalists will be more exercised at the intrusion of postmodernism into candidates' answers and examiners' marks. Since il n'y a pas d'hors-texte and all reading is misinterpretation, to say "F off" is as valid a response as any other, and examiners who acknowledge it as worthy of a few marks - or others, better instructed in the Zeitgeist, who might give it a top grade for forcefulness of expression and independence of mind - are simply helping to dethrone the canon.

Other pedants will be more anxious at renewed evidence of examiners' illiteracy. Why should an exclamation mark get extra credit? "F off" is a command, not an exclamation.

For me, the really disturbing feature of the news item is the evidence it yields of the increasing influence of one of the great evils of our time, the mark scheme. The mark scheme for GCSE English calls for clear expression, with extra credit for accurate spelling. So "Fuck off!" scores. You get no marks for loving the great traditions of learning or for understanding that English is a humane discipline that enhances life.

Mark schemes are an abomination for three main reasons. First, they cannot acknowledge what is really worthwhile in a candidate's work, which is the unexpected - the distinctive insight, the twist of perception that no committee of examiners could anticipate. A truly original mind gets penalised for seeing problems in the question the examiners failed to see, or for identifying approaches no one has thought of before, or simply for having a quirky take. A really complicated, really boring maths or physics question about relative weights and capacities might invite the answer, "It depends on the size of the planet you're on", but a candidate sincerely offering such an answer would get zero for facetiousness. Einstein never did very well at school, anyway. Had his progress depended on conformity with mark schemes, his career would never have started.

Secondly, mark schemes are an admission of the failure of the system. They exist only because the Government, the public, prospective employers and the examining boards do not trust examiners to have common sense or to know enough about their subjects to mark students' work without detailed instructions from institutional busybodies. We should have examiners with independent, unmuzzled judgment. If we cannot get them, we should try to attract them by paying more, or by creating a more conducive culture or by recruiting them from better educated countries than our own. If all that fails, we should scrap exams altogether and devise some better way of equipping deserving students with reputable qualifications. The low expectations that make us inflict mark schemes on examiners are another example of self-fulfilling pessimism. Independent-minded people will not take on the examiners' roles if we continue to boss them around as if they were idiots.

Finally, mark schemes destroy teachers' initiative. They are part of the unbearable prescriptiveness of the contemporary educational establishment, which emanates from a climate of fear and mistrust of teachers. Some fear them as irresponsible radicals. Some mistrust them as the dross of the educational system, who, if they were more enterprising, more intelligent or more ambitious, would do a better-paid, better-respected job. All the apparatus of evaluation crushes teachers' independence, dethrones them from control of their classrooms, belittles them in their students' eyes, and cuts down on the time they have to do their real job, which is to give their pupils wonderful intellectual experiences. When I read an exam script, I don't want to see compliance with bureaucratically generated targets and objectives. I want to see evidence of stimulation, excitement, love of the subject and independence of thought, and other qualities I have not even thought of. You cannot quantify these gifts. They emerge between the lines and beyond the reach of the mark scheme.

There are other, routine characteristics of good work that can be assessed objectively: knowledge of materials prescribed for the exam, logic, accuracy in the use of language. But let no one say how much of each of these a student must display: the mixture will vary and the overall quality of one student's work against another's will depend on the power of the resulting blend to impress the well-educated, critically minded, passionately engaged person we want to be the examiner. Mark schemes are educationally damaging, even if they are relatively good of their kind, but good markers are always benign. We should scrap the schemes and say "Fuck off" to them, probably with an implied exclamation mark. Only if we start trusting examiners are we likely to get good ones.

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