I have been a teacher for 29 years, a Headteacher for 14 years and, at the age of 53, this much I know about how examination boards are making the teacher recruitment and retention crisis worse.
This conversation happened yesterday afternoon between me and Laura, one of our brightest and best, incredibly dedicated young teachers. She teaches the OCR Cambridge National Certificate in Health & Social Care, Levels 1/2. I was walking the school during the last lesson of the week, visiting every Year 11 class to offer support to teachers and students. Laura was coming out of her office – she is a House Pastoral Leader – and I just asked her how things were going…

Me: ‘Hi Laura, how are things going?’

Laura: ‘Oh fine, I’m just a bit stressed.’

Me: ‘Stressed or under pressure?’

Laura: ‘Oh, it’s fine, it’s just this Health & Social Care marking. I’ve got 29 pieces of coursework to mark on this new spec and the exam board have sent us no exemplars. Nothing. There is nothing to help us mark this coursework. I have been on the chat rooms in the evening trying to find someone who might mark with me, but the closest person I can find is in Cumbria. She said, “Yes, come over to me and we’ll work together”, but I haven’t got time to go across there at the weekend. So, I am desperate to mark the work, but I don’t feel confident that I know what the difference is between “Basic”, “Sound” and “Thorough” – especially between “Basic” and “Sound” – and when you ring the board to ask for help they make you feel like you are cheating.’

Me: ‘That’s outrageous.’

Laura: ‘Do you want to see what I have to do?’

Me: ‘Sure.’

Laura then took me to her classroom, where piles of coursework were strewn across  every table, and showed me what she has to mark. She has 29 students’ work to assess, having to write comments to justify her marks in 7 boxes for each student. That is 203 separate comments with minimal, if any, support from OCR. Page after page of assessment descriptors without any exemplar materials to help Laura, and her colleagues across the country, make accurate interpretations of what on earth the descriptors mean:

And when Laura talked me through the coursework and showed me the descriptors it was even worse, because at least one of the descriptors was quite confused:

‘Some’ is quantitative; ‘minor’ is qualitative; ‘few’ is quantitative’. I could misspell eight words and that would constitute ‘some’ errors, but I could misuse a comma 50 times and that would constitute 50 ‘minor’ punctuation errors. Just one spelling mistake would constitute ‘few’ spelling errors. How did this get through OFQUAL’s quality assurance mechanisms?
If we want to recruit and retain the very best teachers in our schools, the examination boards have a responsibility to stop this assessment nonsense. If we have to have descriptors, and each descriptor is linked to a certain number of marks and the teacher has to decide a best fit for the piece of work and award a specific mark accordingly, why does the teacher have to write comments to justify the marks? It is obvious that the teacher has awarded that mark because he or she thinks it meets that descriptor. If, as an examination board moderator, you want to judge whether the teacher has awarded a mark accurately, read the student’s work, not the teacher’s commentary, because the commentary will just mirror the descriptor.
We have to keep the Lauras of our teaching world in our schools. Our Laura works tirelessly. Students adore her. She is brilliant in the classroom and a superb middle leader. I want her to have her weekends back. I want her to remain in the profession.
But what Laura showed me yesterday, on a wet Friday afternoon in late April, when the pressure of impending examinations is at its peak, was wholly unnecessary. As a school we are doing a great number of things to reduce teacher workload, but if the examination boards are piling the pressure on teachers through their inadequate and unnecessary assessment practices, we will continue to see the teacher recruitment and retention crisis deepen.

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This post has 6 Comments

  1. Absolutely spot on. The mark criteria should be objective and crystal clear. Boards should be obliged to provide exemplar material and training, especially for new specifications. One could almost be tempted to think that not doing so opens up additional income streams for them, even though the exam fees are such a money-spinner in the first place.

  2. After 14 years working in secondary education I have had the opportunity to leave education. Education in England is where educated teachers work in an uneducated system. I work in a school with challenging students with a multiple of issues before they get to school. I teach vocational subjects and for have specialised in construction for the past 10 years. I have had to endure 7 specification changes with another on the way. Who makes these changes. I have taught NQF BTEC Construction where the amount of paperwork consumed me. We have taught another exam board for Construction where the exemplar work from an exam board CPD which I used to base my students work on was later found to be not good enough when we checked our portfolios with another centre. I was told that the exam board exemplars were not good enough to rely on.
    After 14 years and 16 different GCSE specifications I have had enough, especially when OFSTED say our schools’s teachers have so called low expectations. I am in a no win situation and like your teacher you mentioned she will get disillusioned and leave like the tens of thousands who go each year.
    It is not your fault education to me is dysfunctional especially for students who need a vocational education experience.

  3. Absurd. I spent 15 years as a senior moderator in music complaining about the need for teachers to narratively justify marks when descriptors were provided by the board. All the best to Laura. I’d offer to help if I was competent enough.

  4. We have had similar issues this year with sending off music compositions etc. It’s taking hours and hours of work to try and understand the criteria for marking but then the time to upload the music and all the administration that goes with it is stressing teachers out.

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