Exam marking: is it really worth it?

While the annual furore over exam results rages and “experts” ponder the long-term psychological effects that sitting exams has on our young people, I’m going to share with you my thoughts on a related but slightly different topic. But before I do, I want to apologise for the tone of what follows. I usually try to be upbeat and positive in what I write, and am always the first to blast the Secret Teacher columns for their navel-gazing, masochistic claptrap and their agenda of painting the profession as brow-beaten and on its knees. However, I am painfully aware that this post exposes me to accusations of hypocrisy. You see, I’m going to have a good moan about my experiences of exam marking. You have been warned…

I’ve just completed my tenth year as a qualified English teacher, and for nine of those years I’ve marked the English Language paper for AQA. To begin with, it was a very useful experience. As a recently qualified teacher, it was an incredibly helpful way to familiarise myself with exams, how they worked, and how students tackled them. I always felt it was also quite an altruistic practice; whilst I was ensuring my colleagues’ students from around the country were getting the GCSE grades they deserved, other teachers were doing the same for me and my students. It also allowed me to effectively prepare my students for the exam and to give them useful advice on the common mistakes that other students made. And of course, the money was always welcome with the long summer holiday just around the corner.

I was lucky enough at that time to have a HoD who actively encouraged her staff to mark and felt that this was an effective use of their gained time. I can see the rationale here; although examiners are being remunerated for their work, the valuable insight they develop into exams feeds directly back into departments and should have a positive impact on teaching and learning.

The marking schedule, for me, always takes about a hundred hours, spread over about four weeks. When I first started, I used to take home a minimum of about £1200. In the first few years, this equated to an extra month’s salary or more, which was great. As an hourly rate, it compared quite favourably to what I earned as a teacher. However, since exam marking went online, the pay has gradually reduced. Although the allocation practically halved, the hours worked didn’t, and this year I cleared just over £800 on the standard allocation. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that this equates to just £8 per hour, not really what you’d expect to be paid for work that requires a degree, a professional qualification and at least one year’s teaching experience.

I work in a very small school, and I know of four of us who mark GCSE exams. Two of those have said they will not mark next year and one is undecided. I know that I will because maintaining my involvement in the marking system will be useful as we move into the new GCSEs, hopefully allowing me to help my students achieve the best they can. However, I can say that the money is a big put-off, and there are other reasons why I will have to think hard about taking part in exam marking in the future.

Because we still have to prioritise our main jobs, the exam marking has to take place at evenings and weekends. However, despite this, I have no doubt that my main job suffers. My lesson planning and delivery are less effective during the marking period and the frequency of written feedback on students work decreases (partly due to the fact that we are also marking Year 10 mock exams at this time). As I’m also the HoD, my other major responsibility is to ensure that I am always available for and willing to support my team. However, I’ll make no bones about it; my heart sinks when colleagues enter my room during this period, whether for a chat or to discuss an issue. My head keeps telling me that every minute spent in conversation is a minute where I’m not completing tasks that need to be done to allow me to mark exams when I get home. Worse still, this affects the way I interact with students; I have to force myself to be civil and listen to them outside of lesson time. Again, my head tells me that I should be clearing tasks that will allow me to mark when I get home.

Even worse than the above is the impact marking has on family life. During this time I become snappy and impatient with the kids. My heart sinks when my wife comes to sit with me at the table where I’m marking – my head keeps telling me to get rid of anything and anybody that comes in the way of marking the exams. Is anything really worth this?

This year was even worse – whilst at a county subject leaders’ meeting that happened in the marking period, I put my back out. All I did was stand up during a break and I felt my lower back click. For weeks afterwards I was in terrible pain, which is still recurring now two months later. I put this entirely down to the fact that during the marking period, exercise goes completely out of the window. During this time, I’m either commuting or sat at a desk, which spells disaster for anyone susceptible to back problems. A corollary of this is that I don’t get to raise my pulse at all during that period meaning none of the happy release of endorphins that a good bike ride or dog walk induce, making me even more miserable and arsey.

The silliest thing is that I’m aware of all this as it’s happening and I know that I could do something about it. I could mark less and go for a ride or walk the dog; I could close the laptop lid and chat to my wife over a glass of wine; I go onto the lawn and have a game of football with the kids; hell, I could just sack the whole bloody thing off all together. But every year, when the offer comes through from AQA, I always tick the “accept” box and think about what a crisis we’d be in if nobody marked and how that few hundred quid will allow us to do a few more things over the summer. I know that next year I will mark again, and I know that for a month I’ll become a monster who’s being paid £8 an hour for the trouble.

Is it really worth it? I think not.

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About Andrew Warner

Mostly English teacher, AHT (T&L/literacy/CPD) & bibliophile. Irregular examiner, MTBer, armchair anthropologist & bassist. Fascinated by language & behaviour.

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