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The International Writers Magazine: A-Level Playing Field? - Archives

You Get What You Pay For With Tight-Fisted Exam Boards
• Lily Chamberlain
The UK's exam boards are sacrificing students' wellbeing to save money. But what else can we expect of shady, unaccountable private companies?

Please don’t ask me what I did last night. It’s a pointless exercise even at the best of times: you don’t care, I know you don’t care, and the mere fact that I don’t care about you not caring suggests we probably shouldn’t even be talking to each other, let alone making stupid small talk such as this. So don’t do it. Particularly not today. I know I’m 17 and it’s the summer holidays, but to tell you the truth, rather than sweating profusely against strange, intoxicated bodies at a party, I spent last night lying in bed torturing myself over exams I took almost two months ago.

This process of mental self-flagellation has been enjoyed by students the world over since the invention of exams. The instruments of torture, too, have always remained the same; a branding iron inscribed with the question, “Did you write enough?”; a whip that cracks to the sound of, “Did you read that question correctly?”; a pair of nipple clamps that remind you that you’re rubbish at History anyway so you should probably just curl up in a corner and cry. Yet when I lay down to sleep last night, I was plagued by a different issue entirely: will AQA, my school’s exam board of choice, mark my paper correctly?

Sadly, this is not an odd question for a modern-day A-level student to consider; seldom does an exam season go by without leaving a trail of marking-related horror stories in its wake. A Chemistry paper with an unusually pedantic mark scheme left an entire year group with extremely low grades. Someone who was devastated to receive a B and a C for two of their exams had them both remarked and went up a grade and a half in each. So-and-so from Mr X’s class got a U for his RS module because the exam board lost half of his paper (!). These things happen, and with such alarming frequency that our teachers are forced to prepare us for them: “If you receive a result you’re unhappy with, have the paper remarked. Usually someone’s made a mistake.” Such was the advice of the vast majority of my teachers in the lead up to the January exams.

But where does this apparent incompetence come from? The answer is always the same; as with all private companies, the root of every problem facing AQA and its competitors is the desire to save money. Consider last year’s “shocking” revelation that examiners had been found doing their marking “in the pub”. With a purported fee of £3.30 per paper (“pittance”, says one ex-examiner) for those working for Edexcel, it should come as no surprise to discover that markers are using every means at their disposal to save time and get as many papers done as possible – even if it means multitasking a little. Thus, Edexcel’s concern for its profit margins results in the sloppy marking that haunts every GCSE and A level pupil.

In a similar vein, OCR (among others) requires next to no teaching experience or expertise of its examiners, asking only that they be “in higher education” or “hold a level 4 [undergraduate] qualification”. Naturally the advantage of this is that the exam board can pay its markers less – I’m so happy for OCR I could weep with vicarious joy – but the disadvantages are serious for those of us awaiting our results in OCR subjects this August. Of course, a lack of understanding on the part of the examiner opens the door to ever more pedantic mark schemes, meaning that students are marked increasingly on their ability to remember a key word rather than their general ability in the subject. As a consequence, many students who thought they did well this summer will be reduced to tears this week simply because they wrote “X is Y” rather than “X is a slightly longer word meaning the exact same thing as Y” a few times over on one of their exam papers. Yet this paradigm of misery works both ways; if Michael Gove is puzzled as to why kids are entering university without a modicum of knowledge about the subject they’re studying, for example, he should take an AS Biology paper. Unless he possesses an encyclopaedic knowledge of random sampling techniques, synonyms for the word "biased" and the mating behaviour of seahorses, he'll be in for a well-deserved shock.

The current system cannot sustain itself. Just as Stalin’s drive for productivity in the factories of the Soviet Union served as an ice pick to the head of quality and creativity (see? I’m good at History! I definitely haven’t failed my AS level oh god oh god oh god), the overwhelming concern for profits amongst the UK’s exam boards is leaving catastrophe after catastrophe in its wake, as quality is sacrificed for quantity where marking is concerned.

This time, however, the root cause is undoubtedly the country’s continued use of private companies with tight fists. Think of the lessons we’ve (hopefully) learned from the “humiliating shambles” that resulted from G4S’ involvement in the Olympics. Here, we saw the government – or rather its representatives at Locog – clamber into bed with the company’s offer of seductively cheap security, only to withdraw in ill-deserved horror when its unscrupulous concubine failed to deliver on targets to which it had previously been all too happy to agree. A private firm like AQA, OCR or G4S is concerned with nothing but profits, profits, profits, at the expense of the service it is supposed to provide. The result is incompetence and, therefore, the ruination of lives. If the emphasis were placed on creating a system that is fairer for students, not merely cheaper for the exam board, all the problems I have described could be averted, or at the very least greatly reduced in the frequency with which they occur.

On the day that results were released for this year’s January exams, misery abounded. Many of my schoolmates wrote on Twitter that they felt empty, depressed – in some cases, a gross disappointment to their families. Results’ day has the propensity to delight and to horrify in equal measure. I guess my message to the exam boards is this: we students have enough worries as it is. I want to be able to lie in my bed at night and torment myself with thoughts of my History paper, not your general incompetence. Sort yourselves out, please. Goodnight.

© Lily Chamberlain August 16th 2013
lily_chamberlain at

For the record Lily gained 5 A's

Just over a quarter of exam entries - 26.3% - were given A or A* grades, a slight fall on 2012's figure of 26.6%.


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