Every so often (well, increasingly frequently actually) I read something that makes me think that so-called education experts have taken leave of their senses completely. This time it was a little news item tucked away in one of those sections of a newspaper that review the week’s events. Apparently the chief examiner for the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance said he had given a GCSE candidate two marks for answering a question with the pithy phrase “fuck off”. The two marks were given, he claimed, because the candidate had shown some very basic skills, and because writing an obscenity is judged to be better than writing nothing at all.
This raises all kinds of interesting questions about skills and standards, especially at this time of year when we are all focused on exams in one way or another.
I have been to two final exam boards recently, one in my own university and one in the place where I am an external examiner. When you sit on more than one board, you begin to understand why the media rub their hands with glee about uneven standards. We all go round telling our foreign colleagues that we have the fairest system in the world because we have external examiners who control the quality of the degrees we offer, but actually, that’s only part of the story. What really matters is what the external examiners are allowed to do. I know some places where we didn’t see a single paper and just had to monitor administrative procedures, other places where we were expected to attend for an exam board and ratify marks, again without seeing a single paper, and yet others where the internal marking system was so intricate that it would have taken an outsider a decade to understand how it worked, so you just go along with it because you haven’t got the time or the energy to do anything else.
This year, everyone has been more anxious than usual because of all the stuff in the papers about degrees being dumbed down and too many first-class marks being awarded. This debate usually happens in August when the A-level results come out. It’s always polarised: one camp insists that standards have declined and we are producing a generation of semi-literates, the other insists that everybody is getting top marks because they are cleverer and work harder. The debate is always accompanied by the handwringers who whinge about how the poor students will feel demoralised by being told that they aren’t as good as their parents’ generation, and by the nutters who produce statistics showing that better exam results are a result of improved diet or some such nonsense. The A-level pupils may be spared the flak this year because the universities got it instead.
Anyway, the university where I was an external examiner sent round a stern missive from the vice-chancellor exhorting us all to monitor borderline marks very carefully. Apparently, a risk analysis had shown that this university was producing too high a proportion of first-class degrees and was getting edgy about possibly featuring in the Daily Mail as a soft touch. Our own v-c, Big D, took the opposite line and sent round a note reminding us that our risk analysis showed that we hadn’t produced our benchmark of firsts and we had better start jacking up the marks to make sure that we didn’t drop even further in the league table of top-degree-scoring institutions. Both exam boards I attended took these instructions very seriously, but in the end nothing changed. We spent the best part of an hour in University X haggling over one poor soul whose marks totted up to 69.25 (a mark that would have guaranteed a first in our place, where anything over 68 goes up automatically, in line with our regulations) and finally decided to go with a 2:1 to appease the v-c. In our meeting, we spent most of the afternoon trying to persuade the external examiners to give a few more marks to various candidates, but they were a nasty combination of old-school has-beens clinging on to the past and new thrusting over-promoted careerists, so were not inclined to be generous.
I just wish I’d seen the item about the GCSE chief examiner before either of the meetings, because I would have been tempted to suggest that student guidelines be rewritten to draw their attention to this practice. You could adapt it for different subjects – literary students could get extra marks for colourful expletives, my lot would get points for historical expletives, scientists would get points for original expletives and language students would get points for writing “fuck” in French or German. The possibilities are endless and I bet the media would love it.
Gloria Monday is a mid-career historian employed in one of the many universities with aspirations to international greatness.