Testing and assessment: We will fail him on the beaches

A computerised system is increasingly being used to mark exam papers. It's a good job Churchill wasn't being examined...

It is one of the most famous and inspirational speeches ever to be given in the House of Commons, its bold refrain coming to symbolise the indomitable British spirit in the Second World War.

But Winston Churchill's "We shall fight on the beaches" speech would not, it seems, have flourished under the computerised marking system slowly being introduced to grade exams in the UK. When the speech was submitted to a computerised system set up to mark English literature papers, it was awarded an "F for failure".

The computer particularly disliked Churchill's use of repetition, as in: "We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields, we shall fight in the hills." His use of the word "might", as in "the might of the Army", was also picked out as an erroneous use of a verb instead of a noun.

Yesterday, the sorry saga of the speech was revealed at a conference to discuss testing and assessment. David Wright, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Educational Assessors (CIEA), the professional body representing markers, told how a copy of Churchill's speech had been uploaded to a website set up to assess English literature.

The conference heard how efforts to introduce electronic marking into the GCSE and A-level were slowly beginning to take root in the UK examination system, an idea with which most schoolchildren do not feel comfortable.

Salil Bhate, a pupil at King Edward VI grammar school in Chelmsford, Essex, and a member of the executive of the English Secondary Students' Association, said: "Young people simply don't trust electronic marking". He added: "You study for two years and at the end of it there's a computer which decides whether you get an A* or C grade. We deserve more respect than that."

Of course, Churchill's speech was not a literary text, and therefore not designed to be treated as a piece of English literature to be marked according to exam standards. But Mr Wright and his colleagues at the CIEA used it to make the point that the computer could not take into account dramatic effect. They also said it had perhaps been too rigid in rejecting the use of the word "might" as a noun.

Churchill was not the only famous person to fall foul of the electronic marking system – the computer also dismissed the works of Ernest Hemingway and William Golding. It decided that Hemingway was not careful enough in his choice of verbs, while Golding was found to resort to ungrammatical usage in the dramatic final scene of Lord of the Flies, in which Ralph flees from the rest of the children.

Isabel Nisbet, acting chief executive of Ofqual, the independent exams watchdog, argued that students could compare the computer's assessment to a marker who had experienced a rough night before marking an exam. There are, however, plans to continue with pencil-and-paper tests at GCSE level until at least 2013.

Electronic marking is being introduced slowly, and exam experts said it was being concentrated in subjects where there were more likely to be direct answers, such as science and maths, rather than in areas which required more freedom of expression.Ms Nesbit said that, if it was up to her, she would "go back to the computer which devised the system and say, 'That's a crap system; get a better one'." Churchill, however, would not have been too dismayed to see that his efforts failed to gain him respect from the education sector. His own dismal experiences with schooling are well chronicled.

Put to the test: Churchill, Hemingway and Golding

Sir Winston Churchill; marked down for repetition

Churchill said: "We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills: we shall never surrender." The computer marked him down for repetition.

Churchill went on to talk of the Empire "with all its power and might". Here again he fell foul of the computerised system, which accused him of wrongly using the verb "might" (as in "may") as a noun.

William Golding; sentence without a verb

William Golding was marked down for using "A face" as a sentence for dramatic effect at the end of Lord of the Flies, when describing how Ralph comes face to face with one of his tormentors. At the time, he is hiding in a bush and peeping out to try and see what they are doing.

Ernest Hemingway; careless use of verbs

Ernest Hemingway is criticised for his use of verbs in a short story. The computer marker claims the use is "careless". However, academics say Hemingway was always extremely careful in his verb choices – using them for narrative and dramatic effect, something which the computer cannot measure.