Why I don't trust A-level results

September 2, 2005

"If you're an A-level student who hasn't got the grade you wanted, get your A-level papers re-examined.

"And if you're a lecturer looking at prospective students, prioritise interviews over the students' exam results."

That would be my emphatic advice after two years of being an A-level examiner.

It would be difficult to imagine how the system could be anything other than a shambles.

On the one hand, the number of students taking A levels has more than doubled since the 1960s; on the other, teachers are as unlikely to want to become examiners as they ever were.

Examining comes at the end of the school year when teachers are tired.

Exam boards offer examiners between £3.80 and £4.50 per paper and allow three weeks to mark roughly 390 papers.

Teachers will do the job only if they're desperate for the money, which is why university lecturers like me are able to get jobs as examiners.

I'm apparently qualified to examine A levels though not to teach them - my dusty old CertEd is no longer valid as a result of recent government shake-ups in the education system.

Not to worry, though, because all new examiners are given a whole day's training. This is mostly about the stage-by-stage process of examining. It assumes you're a schoolteacher and know about the intri-cacies of present educational culture in schools.

Thus I, like about 20 of the 50-odd people sitting in the training room, am lost as soon as the trainer starts to talk of "A1s", "A2s" "units" and "routes".

What we do learn about is confidentiality. Don't mark in a public place, lest you are approached by an inquisitive student, parent or, God help you, a tabloid journalist.

After the first year, there's just one day's "standardisation meeting" immediately after the exam has been sat.

These meetings are rushed and con-fusing. Teams of about eight examiners will sit around tables to compare grades that they'd give for "specimen papers".

There are always vast disagreements - the grades awarded differ by as much as 7 per cent.

At the end of the day and feeling little the wiser about the whole thing, we're duly despatched to lay into the mounds of papers that have already begun arriving by courier at our homes.

Rules of secrecy prevent you from knowing anything about the exam questions till the exam has been taken, so I have just two days to mug up on issues I haven't thought about for years.

There's little time in the next three weeks to do much but just read and mark papers. I get it down to about seven minutes per paper.

We've been given marking guidelines, but any feeling of confidence in accurate grading is quickly undermined.

The essays in front of me simply refuse to fit into neat categories.

"Go with your gut," other examiners have told me. After two years, I still haven't developed the requisite "gut". I don't know what I'm doing. But there's no time to worry about that. Mark a paper, move on.

If I think I've overgraded or under-graded a candidate, there is not much I can do - I don't have time to go back and check. I'm worried constantly that I'll lose my job - I really need the money.

And, yes, I'm worried I'll ruin a kid's life if I get it wrong. But I know I won't be the only examiner who feels this way. It's not our fault, it's a fault of the system - it is simply overloaded and overheated.

A-level examiner and university lecturer

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