Virtually all school and college staff become aware of exams in May and June, even if only because certain areas are barricaded off with signs requesting silence and consideration. The temptation may be, when those signs disappear, to ask your Exams Officer what they do for the rest of the year. Marcia Woods, Exams Officer at Brookfield Community School in Chesterfield, explains.
In most schools and colleges in the country there is one person, or a small team of people, responsible for ensuring students are entered for the right exams and sit those exams at the right time, in the right place. Exams Officers must be familiar with a 60+ page manual of rules and regulations on how exam papers are managed and securely stored, how exam rooms are set up, the equipment students are allowed to take in with them and numerous other things to ensure the process is secure and fair to all students. Time must be put aside every autumn term to take note of any changes and update school/college policies. On top of this are the jobs of handling queries from teaching colleagues and concerned parents and managing one of the biggest budgets in the school or college.
Here are some of the issues that I, and my very professional Exams Officer colleagues, navigate each year:
- Secure storage has become a scarce resource. I was fortunate enough to get two large secure cabinets a few years ago. They were so large and heavy that they took two men and a motorised trolley to get into place. They were then bolted to the floor for good measure. Despite their size, they are typically filled to overflowing with question papers before the exams start. You can’t squeeze them in too tightly for fear that a package tears and the confidentiality of question papers is breached and must be reported to the exam board. They must also be stored in chronological order, which becomes a logistical challenge when some papers arrive closer to the exam than others.
- The huge task of recruitment, training and deployment of invigilators. The Exams Officer at your school or college is probably the line manager for the largest group of staff there. Recruitment needs to be started around February to allow time to advertise, interview, DBS check and train staff before the exams start. Some Exams Officers struggle to recruit staff, but my free advert at a local supermarket worked well and I employed 5 new invigilators to join my established team this year. Then comes the training to ensure they know what the regulations are and the planning of how to deploy the team.
- Regulation of non-examination assessments (also referred to as coursework) requires schools and colleges to notify students of their marks so students can request a review if they wish. Deadlines for subjects differ, which involves more administration through the lead up to the summer exams.
- Once we have the exam timetable, we can start creating detailed seating plans. A lot of insider knowledge goes into this. Which students get really anxious and need to be seated near an exit? Which students must not be seated near each other? It’s time consuming but avoids problems during exams. And finally, who has come in on a Monday morning nursing a dislocated shoulder, or worse? Exams Officers must plan in great detail and then be prepared to change and adapt at the last minute.
- Mobile phones have become a greater issue in recent years – students find it difficult to be parted from them. We must stop them from being brought into an exam room or face a malpractice report and the student getting zero marks for a paper. Some schools and colleges use scanners to detect phones. At my school, we hold briefings with students and warn them of the consequences of bringing phones into their exams. We also provide a bag and ticket system for invigilators to collect phones and return to their owners after the exam. This year we did not have any incidents with mobile phones, but this is not always the case.
- Planning for low likelihood events is important. For the very first time in my 13-year Exams Officer career, we had a fire alarm go off during an exam this year. We have always discussed our fire alarm policy in training but never had to put it into practice. I am very proud to say that our students behaved impeccably, and the invigilators managed the situation perfectly.
- We usually have several students too ill to attend for exams. Most students will manage to complete their exams, but there is usually an interesting challenge to handle, like the year we had a student taken ill during an exam.
- There are a few students, every year, who misread their exam timetable. They don’t arrive, we phone, they insist their exam is later that day, we put them right and there is a desperate dash into school.
When the exams have finished, spare exam papers given to the departments, desks packed away and celebratory cakes consumed, you might ask what Exams Officers do with their time now? Well I will tell you – special consideration requests, requesting estimated exam entry information for the following summer (yes, already), planning for access arrangements for next year’s students and preparing for results days, to name but a few tasks. Those envelopes don’t label themselves and there is a lot of information to prepare in case students want to challenge their grades.
On the Wednesday and Thursday of results weeks it will be a 6.30am start to ensure the results are downloaded, printed and ready for students and teachers to see. Then I will need to be available in school for students wanting to request photocopies of exam papers – only a brief window to do this – and to give students detailed information on their marks and grade boundaries.
September rolls around and the work continues with processing reviews of marks and their outcomes, familiarising ourselves with updates to the regulations and forwarding this on to teaching staff, checking the DfE tables of results, mock exam preparation, receiving certificates and preparing for presentation evenings, before starting the entries process for next summer.
During the summer months we typically work 10-12 hour days, and most Exams Officers would be forgiven for wondering why they took the role. But on results days that feeling disappears and we are pleased to have supported another group of young people on the beginning of their career path – wherever it takes them.
So remember, to coin a phrase, an Exams Officer is for the whole year, not just for summer.
Are you an Exams Officer or other member of school/college staff with views on how to run a successful series of exams and how Ofqual might be able to help? Please let us know your thoughts and experiences by taking part in our quick-fire survey here.