Shortage threatens exam results delay

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Senior examiners are warning that thousands of this year's A-level results could be delayed in a repeat of the chaos that overwhelmed the Scottish exams system last summer.

With exam boards still looking for hundreds of extra people to mark this summer's papers, examiners are protesting that they cannot meet their deadlines in some subjects and that accuracy will be compromised in others.

The umbrella group for exams, the Joint Council for General Qualifications, claims that the boards now have enough markers to cope with this summer's record total of entries.

Only last week, however, the biggest exam board, the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance (AQA), told a meeting of its general studies examiners that the shortage is so severe there will be 6,000 A-level scripts left unread by the end of the official marking period.

It is understood that the exam boards still need nearly 1,000 markers ­ 2 per cent of the 48,000 required. They are continuing to advertise for help even though the exams season is well under way.

The Department for Education and Employment is so concerned it is preparing to offer cash to schools whose teachers want to work as markers. The money is intended to pay for temporary staff to cover their absence.

The London-based Edexcel exam board has already offered a £200 bonus to examiners who persuade another teacher to join their ranks. The worst hit subject areas are English, information and communication technology, general studies, media, art and psychology.

The new government will be anxious to avoid a repeat of last summer's disastrous breakdown at the Scottish Qualifications Authority when a computer network failed to cope with a new exam system. Thousands of students had to wait weeks for their grades.

The current shortage has been caused by the introduction of the new AS level exam, which has led to an increase in the number of examiners required. Taken for the first time last week, the AS was introduced to broaden the range of sixth-form studies. It is worth half an A-level, and is taken by students at the end of the first year of sixth-form study.

While the principle of the new system has been welcomed by schools, its arrival has created chaos prompting headteachers to demand a government inquiry.

According to the National Association of Head Teachers, class sizes have risen, exam clashes have caused widespread disruption and students have been forced to abandon extracurricular activities because of the pressure of the new exams. Some may now find their university places threatened if the results are significantly delayed.

"Last year there were 12,000 general studies entries and 45 examiners. This year there are 15,000 entries and 35 examiners," said an examiner with the AQA. "There you have a major problem. To add one third to each examiner's allocation and expect it to be done in the same time is just not possible."

He said that last week AQA officials told the general studies examiners that some 6,000 scripts would be delayed by the shortage of markers.

A senior examiner with Edexcel said that the enormous workload is compromising the accuracy of the results. "Even in the best of circumstances, mistakes can and do occur," he said. "The boards are working under such pressure, I think the number of errors will increase."

An examiner in A-level modern languages with AQA said that he normally visits 30 schools in the exam season to conduct oral examinations. This year he has been asked to visit more than 100. "If I'm realistic, there's a risk that my standards may vary because I'm under so much pressure," he said.

The Scottish Qualifications Authority has already announced it is 1,250 markers short of its 9,420 target despite a promise to double the pay on offer. Examiners in England, Wales and Northern Ireland earn between £9 and £10 an hour. Those in Scotland currently earn £7.50.

The exam schedule is now so crowded that students have been obliged to sit up to eight hours of examinations a day. Others have had to take exams on their own because many popular subjects are scheduled to take place simultaneously. As a result hundreds of pupils have to be "supervised" overnight, staying at the homes of teachers to ensure that they do not consult fellow students. Katie Turner, 18, had to cope with six and a quarter hours of examination in history and maths last Thursday ­ a schedule branded "insane" by her headmistress at Beverley High School in east Yorkshire.

She was even obliged to spend her short lunch break supervised by a member of staff because she had taken her history exam earlier than other students. "I'd have liked to get some fresh air and freshen up, but I couldn't," she said. "The whole day was really awful. I was so tired by the end of it."

A spokesman for the AQA said the board has contingency plans to ensure that the exams are marked in time.