I was an Edexcel marker

Observations on exams

There were about 300 of us in the rented office space on Fleet Street in London: temporary employees staring at computers, while supervisors patrolled up and down berating anyone caught chattering. We worked ten hours a day, with few breaks, and if we fell behind the pace, a little traffic-light icon on the screen would flash orange or red, telling us to get on with it.

This is how GCSE papers are marked these days for the private exam board Edexcel, an affiliate of the Pearson media conglomerate. Once, it may have been a summer holiday task for experienced schoolteachers, no doubt equipped with fountain pens and reference books, but now, with three million papers to be processed, it is online, global (well, some papers are marked in Australia) and frighteningly fast.

To be frank, I was surprised to get the job, because I had never done it before and had no especially relevant qualifications, but Edexcel told me my philosophy degree was sufficient and gave me four hours' training at a London hotel. Many of the other trainees I spoke to were graduates, fresh from temping agencies, and similarly lacking in experience.

This is something that concerns some educationalists. "A few years ago, you would have needed two years' teaching experience - certainly, when I first left university there was no way I would have been allowed to mark exam papers," says Ted Wragg, emeritus professor of education at Exeter. "It is worrying, because you need to be immersed in teaching the subject to understand all the educational, cultural and psychological aspects."

Edexcel admits it employed more ordinary graduates like me this year (and it has also confessed to drafting in its own staff in the rush to meet deadlines), but insists we all met the required standard. The company's managing director, Jerry Jarvis, claims that unspecialised graduates are more consistent than teachers because teachers tend to make allowances and rely on their own judgement.

How was it for me? Frankly, I felt rushed. At first I read each exam answer carefully, but after a week I was merely looking for key phrases and words so that I could keep the traffic light green and process scripts at the required pace. I stuck rigidly to the marking scheme, but I was sometimes frustrated at not being able to reward students who strayed from the standard formulae. Nor did I have time to check answers that referred in detail to, say, Buddhism or Sikhism - I had to rely on my patchy and rudimentary knowledge. I could have asked for help but I was under pressure to meet the deadlines.

Again, Wragg is critical of this approach. "In the humanities you tend to have essay-style answers and you need somebody to do an evaluation of these. In the end, the more pressure you put examiners under, the more crude the marking becomes."

The regulator, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, is happy provided the results are accurate, but I wasn't. Many of the papers I saw were a joy to read, yet I couldn't do them justice. I can't help thinking that students and teachers deserve better.

This article first appeared in the 29 August 2005 issue of the New Statesman, President Hillary: can she do it?