Education: A far from satisfactory result

Unsympathetic marking can ruin promising lives.
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The Independent Culture
THIS HAPPENED during the early days of GCSE. The lessons remain the same.

Her name was Lucy. She was tall, painfully thin with long, jet black hair and fine, sharp features. She sat at the front of the classroom, her eyes following our thematic meanderings through Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd. Reserved, although not unpopular, Lucy was typical of those students who you recognise take your subject seriously. Intelligent, in the modest way some girls are, wrapped in that self-deprecating coyness that can smother and sometimes ruin the most promising. The same coyness that intelligent and ambitious girls learn to use as a shield to advance and mature behind; the ones who succeed and make those magic grades that defy the statistics. Pleasant, industrious, nonchalant; girls such as Lucy get on with it. Then there is fate.

His name was Burton. As senior examiner for the GCSE Literature, his judgement and accuracy were beyond question. Besides, in those days he was my senior. A retired public school teacher, Burton had an eagle's eye for detail; he preferred answers tailored to the needs of the question, and held a religious belief in the upholding of the examination standard. It was not hard to see why he was a senior examiner. Yet he had a thing about Hardy. I noticed it, so did others, usually in the standardisation meetings when some questions were scrutinised in detail. For some unknown reason, Burton always argued the Hardy questions down. "Not enough on Bathsheba", or "No real understanding of Boldwood here".

The difference was never great, but it could be significant if a candidate was on the borderline. So it was with Lucy. For obvious reasons, an examiner can never mark their own school. I knew Burton had marked my school. Curiosity drove me to the script library. My own school grades were as predicted. Burton had done a thorough job. There was Lucy, solid on Macbeth and Milton, down on Hardy; enough to flush her pass away. As a junior marker there was little I could do. I knew Burton could and would argue the case, yet I also knew Lucy would probably have passed with a grain more sympathy from another examiner. The best bet was an appeal after the results. On results day, there was Lucy, looking pleased and collected, yet unable to hide her sadness. I knew she wanted to take A-level Literature. I spoke to her earnestly about appeals and taking the course regardless, and she smiled and agreed and thanked me and left. I phoned her parents, who promised to do their best.

Alas, Lucy preferred not to appeal. She did embark on A-levels, but chose Geography instead of Literature, lacking the confidence the O-level pass endows. At the end of the first year she dropped Geography and took up Literature and managed a D in just a year. As a teacher, I knew what kind of achievement this represented and how much better she would have done in two years. But for Lucy this merely confirmed her failure. I lost track of her after A-level, but heard she didn't apply to university. Two years later, I learnt she'd married a wide boy called Mike. The match seemed doomed and, indeed, within a year she had a child, but no husband.

Time passed. I always remembered Lucy as an example of how important it was as an examiner to get the grade right; to give each script the same consideration. No one will ever convince me Lucy's Literature result was not a decisive influence in her life. Yes, within the system of public examinations the candidate can fail, but the system should never fail the candidate.

Eight years later I heard of Lucy again. She was living in a Wiltshire village with her young son. My source told me she was content but unfulfilled. Apparently she was working on an organic farm, earning a bare living, but content far away from the madding crowd where the Burtons and Mikes of this world would never touch her.

James Ardglass is a pseudonym. All the names in the article have been changed