Underneath the paper mountain

As students celebrate the end of exams, the examiners' work is only just beginning.
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The Independent Online
The exam season may be nearly over for the examinees but it is only just beginning for those whose job it is to mark this mountain of paper - the examiners.

Who are we? Well, by and large, we are teachers and lecturers trying to earn a few extra pounds to pay for a summer holiday. Not that you get much of a vacation for pounds 500. That's about what most of us earn, after stoppages, for three weeks of hard slog.

Our masochistic purdah begins immediately after the standardisation meeting which is usually held in a hotel or conference centre. For many of us, it is the one chance we get of seeing how sales reps live every day of the week. Boeuf bourguignon or cochon de lait certainly make a change from school dinners.

It is at the standardisation meeting that we really familiarise ourselves with the marking scheme and get practice working through sample scripts. By the end of the day we should, in theory, have achieved some kind of uniformity.

What is always taken for granted is that we actually know something about what we are marking. This is a dangerous assumption. Many admit in private they simply haven't a clue about some of the areas of the syllabus. But then, for pounds 500, you can't expect everything.

We return home to set about our task. Over the next few weeks we send regular samples of our marking to the team leaders to ensure that we are keeping to the agreed standard. Some boards even re-mark a cross-section of scripts at the end of the marking period to further guarantee consistency.

Even so, things can go wrong. Erratic or incompetent marking is not always detected and, even when it is, it is sometimes too late to do much about it. More worrying still is the thought that scripts can, and do, go missing. One year, my neighbour found 80 A-level papers behind a tree in his orchard six months after the exam.

Now you might think that we would get bored marking answers to the same questions over and over again. But there a moments of fun. Students can be hilarious and their howlers can refresh a weary examiner.

There are also moments of pathos. One year a candidate gradually broke down, paragraph by paragraph, as she recounted a tale of unrequited love for the boy sitting next to her. Her tears smudged her writing which eventually petered out in her agony.

One cannot fail to be moved by such personal tragedy or by the arguments of one student who wrote a 20-sided account of why, given the imminence of Armageddon, this particular A-level was just a waste of time.

Finally, we come to our last packet of scripts and, our task now done, we vow never to mark again. The extra pressure we subject ourselves to at the end of the academic year often results in family rows or worse. But we need the money. To get it, we have to put in around 70 or 80 hours of very concentrated, intellectual effort.

Meanwhile, my washing machine repair man and my plumber both charge pounds 25 per hour. Being a teacher, and one of those few people still capable of mental arithmetic in 1996, I reckon that this works out at a potential pounds 1,000 for a 40-hour week.

So, if you have cause for complaint about the outcome of this summer's examinations, just remember this: pay peanuts and you get teachers.