Nicki Hlousek, exams manager at Newcastle College, gives an insight into his role.
Those of us involved in exam delivery are often employed in distinct roles with a wide variety of responsibilities. Many work alone as a sole exams officer; others will be members of wider data or student services. All of us, however, share similar pressures and challenges and so one thing is certain; a day in the life of an exams officer is never a dull or boring day.
Personally, I work for the UK’s largest group of FE colleges and that offers some unique challenges. On some of the busier days this summer, we will need around 120 staff to cover invigilation alone. There are thousands of Applied General learners enrolled at our largest centre and overseeing all those external assessments is a huge logistical challenge. Our exams office is also responsible for the successful delivery of A level exams to our large sixth form college and that is a mammoth task.
Working for a large and complex organisation, however, means I can enjoy some unique benefits too. I am supported by a team of fabulous exams administrators. We have a dedicated and fantastic quality team and my line manager, who leads the wider data services team, has a wealth of knowledge and experience I can fall back on.
As I mentioned earlier, it really doesn’t matter what our specific roles are or what type of organisation we are a part of, being involved in exams delivery means we are expected to:
- Keep track of the many deadlines and key dates and work with others in our schools and colleges to make sure those are met. We rely on others to be able to meet those deadlines, something that is becoming increasingly difficult with the sector’s ongoing difficulties with recruitment. Navigate the constantly changing regulations and guidance. There has clearly been effort by Ofqual encouraging all the awarding organisations to streamline their processes, which is great because it can often feel like navigating a labyrinth. Regulations are being changed constantly in response to the ever-changing world we live in, and each awarding organisation is trying to improve their own portals and guidance in turn. However great that is, it does mean we need to keep on top of reading new or regularly updated lengthy publications and guidance, which can reach more than 100 pages at a time.
- Recruit, train and allocate invigilators. As they did last year, I am sure news agencies will run a piece on the shortages of invigilators closer to the summer exams. The change to the ratio of required invigilators per number of candidates last year was welcomed by all and I am still hoping for something similar!
- Prepare and arrange exam packs, stationery, exam rooms, book external venues and arrange furniture removals, resolve clashes, and finalise all access arrangements and seating plans. Basically, ensure that everything runs smoothly and according to the regulations.
- Download and upload exams base data, process exam entries, prepare statement of entries, deal with results, post results, prepare statements of results and all the other things that happen in the background. Many people may assume we have one busy exam period each year but there are many tasks that keep us busy or up at night throughout the year.
Demanding roles are often the most exciting and rewarding and this can be true for exams officers. While it can often feel like things are not going to plan or our to-do lists are getting out of hand, there are a few things I’ve found we can do to make our lives easier:
- Plan and prepare. We cannot predict every emergency or fire alarm, but we can prepare for those things we know will be happening, like the submission of exam entries, results days, invigilation recruitment and training, and all the additional things that crop up in the usual exams cycle. Personally, I find that robust planning before every academic year is the most important task I can do. Drawing up a plan of tasks keeps me on track – I can check against my diary where I should be at any given time. It seems like an obvious tip but being in the thick of it all made it difficult for me to plan properly in the past. Once I started planning, it changed the way I see my role. This also helps me greatly when agreeing internal deadlines as I can clearly articulate what tasks may require my attention and how long they’ll take to complete. Keep on top of the updates. Make sure to digest all the newsletters and updates. You may argue that we just do not have enough time but, in reality, we do not have the time to ignore them. Awarding organisations are here to support us, so if you are not sure about something, always contact them directly. This is especially important with the introduction of the new deadlines (data checkpoints) this year to ensure that the vocational results are issued to students timely and correctly.
- Meet with relevant teams and colleagues. Plan well in advance to meet with different colleagues at your centre and make sure to stick to those meetings. Discuss any key dates and negotiate internal deadlines while outlining any potential risks should these deadlines not be met. These meetings will prove invaluable as an opportunity to build on good processes, or to improve where necessary. This is also one of the best ways to raise the profile of the exams office at your centre and improve your working relationships with others which will go a long way.
- Network with other exams officers. It turns out that we are very helpful and sociable around other exams officers, and I have found that others will proudly share their successes or talk to you about their frustrations. Reach out to other exam officers, join the existing exams officers social network groups, or simply network by taking part in one of the many webinars that are often set up by the awarding organisations. The ingenious solutions to the issues of desk cards, statements of entries, invigilator rotas are out there, and I am sure any exams officer will gladly share whatever practical tips they can.
- Raise concerns with the leadership team. Do not be afraid to delegate up, talk to your line manager or speak to the senior leadership teams at your centres if you are concerned about anything. The saying ‘come to me with a solution not a problem’ is the golden rule here too. Present them with a number of possible solutions to your issues and they will no doubt support you.
- Do not struggle alone. You may have noticed the pattern in most of the things I find that help me. A problem shared is problem halved. You may be the sole exams person at your centre, but it should never mean you ought to do it all by yourself and without the help of others. Plan ahead, plan early and plan to involve others on your journey.
Another period of summer exams is just ahead, and I am sure that just like every previous year, we all will be working long days. And just like every previous year, with a huge amount of hard work, maybe some tears and just a tiny bit of luck we’ll get through it. We always do. I have a feeling that it is the overwhelming sense of pride and accomplishment that will make us do it all over again next year.