1. Case Study - An inquiry with a parent over the response of the exam officer to an Access Arrangements issue.
Background: A very distraught mother rang up on behalf of her son who was attending an independent school to ask advice on how the access arrangements were being applied to her sons exam needs. She was complaining that the new exams officer was insisting that her son use a laptop in all his GCSE exams. He had started his exams and was complaining of being overtired using a laptop and he did not need it for all his exams so why should he be forced to use one.
The outcome: The approach of the EOA has always been to explain clearly the role of the exams officer and the environment in which they have to operate against the guidance provided by the JCQ. In this case it appeared the exams officer, new to role, was a little over- zealous with advice, stating that it was the JCQ's regulations that drove her decision and if this mother or her son was unhappy they should take the matter up with the JCQ.
It was suggested that this mother, having been made fully aware of the operating situation which prompted the exams officer’s response, should go back to the officer and gently point out that her son should access a laptop when necessary, as supported by his SENCO's original recommendations, based on evidence of use in the appropriate subjects.
In this case the situation was resolved. The approach of the concerned mother was no longer seen by the new exams officer as just another 'pushy parent' trying to undermine the JCQ guidelines (which sometimes exam officers hide behind when they might feel under threat). The whole Access Arrangements process was created to help and support learners should not be seen or used as a mechanism to stop or exclude learners in need or be used inappropriately.
The EOA have always encouraged colleagues to engage more with teaching staff and SENCOs to help understand what is being requested under the JCQ Access Arrangements process so the best possible outcome can be achieved for all learners during live exams.
In the interests of all learners under the care of centre staff, it is therefore unacceptable to suggest or advise exam officers to disassociate themselves from this very important exam process. The exams officer plays a very important part in delivering an effective and sensitive Access Arrangements process in centres on exam days, on behalf of the JCQ and its members.
2. Case Study - An inquiry by an exams officer over JCQ inspection issues
Background: An exams officer from a specific network was concerned about the variations in practice by inspectors over the implementation of new JCQ guidelines. This service is managed by AQA, a JCQ member on behalf of all the 8 members of the JCQ group.
Some exams officers from this network complained that different inspectors were quite aggressive and un-moving over their centre not complying with new guidelines and had issued a bad inspection report. In other centres, many had been told the new guidelines were not being enforced that year while the matter was being looked into.
The net result of such an exchange was some very well established as well as some new exam officers were being totally discouraged by this experience which sat alongside, what they felt was another example of total inconsistency by the JCQ and its AQA driven inspection team.
However, this experience is partly down to individual responses on both sides. There have been many examples reported over the years of inspectors being patronising and dismissive of exams office staff not complying with a particular aspect of the JCQ delivery guidance.
Firstly, it should be remembered that the issue is not with the guidance as it stands. Some people can become carried away with their role and can abuse their authority. Many exam officers have felt intimidated and fearful because this inspector has the backing of the JCQ exams system and that if anything is challenged then a bad report will be issued. The Exams Officer’s job will be put under threat. This is a misuse of authority and only stimulates negativity within the exams officer community towards all activity associated with the JCQ. For some it can be the last straw and cause them to leave their post and take them all that expertise they have built up over the years.
Secondly, it has been a practice by the JCQ and its representatives, including the EOA in the past, to promote the whole inspection process as a mechanism to ensure centres comply with all the JCQ directives. As a result, in the past, some exam officers would complaint to their SLT that better secure storage was needed and it was common practice for exam officers to point to the negative points being picked up in the centres inspection report to force their SLT to take action.Today, most centres have very secure storage areas which they have had to pay for as a result of the JCQ inspection process.
There is no question about the need to have a stable and secure exam system, but if there is to be a more informative and supportive JCQ inspection system it needs to be more consultative to avoid the negative effects it is having on the exam officer community. Similarly, the SLT in centres need to understand how issues at this level are affecting their centre budget and the pressure created on key personnel like exam officers. Inspectors also need to be more sensitive and inclusive so that exam officers are respected and encouraged in their role. In turn, however, exams officers must be far less resistant than is sometimes the case when being confronted with change. Some established exams officers appear cynical over any change. But some changes are necessary and cannot be avoided. All participants in the process need to concentrate on running the exam system with commitment and determination to do a good job for learners.
3. Case Study - An inquiry by an exams officer over a disciplinary issue within their centre
Background: A well-established and experienced exams officer requested the attendance of an EOA representative at a disciplinary hearing. Her role was under threat because the school claimed she had acted inappropriately over requests into results of specific A level students.
While the EOA was invited by an EOA member, it attended with the full agreement of the SLT with following remit. The position of the EOA at such a meeting was to independently clarify the role and responsibilities of an exams officer operating with the parameters operated by the public exam system. It was, therefore, the role of the EOA to make sure this examinations officer was not being unfairly dealt with or blamed over something outside their control or beyond their exams officer job remit, but equally not to seek to justify indefensible actions.
Outcome: The person in question lost her job. It was clear that she had acted inappropriately, lied about information and actions she had taken over results and then tried to hide it. But we all make mistakes so why such a severe punishment? This person was an ex-banker. Very organized and through. She had an air authority about her. The sort of person you would want in your centre. Someone who would get the job done. Someone you could trust.
But this person made a fatal error of judgement. This was a new SLT in a difficult position. They needed to engage with new processes to turn the school around. They needed help and cooperation from their exams officer to whom they looked for guidance and support. Instead they felt they were only getting back resistance to any form of informed change. This officer had become established and had not attended any training for years. She was very set in her ways. She had avoided keeping in touch through their local network and had sought to maintain a good exam office solely through her expertise and knowledge.
But if that knowledge base is never updated and her practices never challenged then how could anyone know they had were out of date?. It turned out that this episode over an exams issue was not an isolated incident. There had been a long period of conflict between the two parties over school cover and various other roles this person had taken on. It became clear that this person could never say no and had overstretched herself and was now experiencing the consequences. As with most people, she was her own worst enemy. In discussions with the SLT it was admitted that there should have been more awareness of the workload issues and promised not to allow any future exams officer to take on so many duties, that it impacted on their key role as an exams officer.
4. Case Study - An inquiry over a member of the teaching staff being disciplined over malpractice
Background: A teaching union representative at an Ofqual ESEG was concerned at the way one of their members had been taken to task by the JCQ over their malpractice. How could this happen? The suggestion was that this transgression was an innocent mistake over some misunderstanding of the JCQ guidelines. Many teachers have the opportunity to turn to their exams officer for advice on the internal workings of the exams system but may only engage with when handing over their subject entries.
Since workforce re-modelling in 2003 teachers have been discouraged through their unions to be involved with the exam system delivery. It is therefore not a surprise that many teachers feel just as isolated from the exam system as non-teaching exams officers feel about their sometimes desperate relationship with the teaching community. Exams officers have complained about isolation and not being acknowledged by teachers and SLTs within centres while at the same time were happy to be left to get on with job without any interference from teachers.
This setup is fine if all goes well, but a lack of understanding on both sides can does lead to problems. Exams officers have accused teachers of not listening to them when they give expert advice, as may have happened to this unfortunate teacher. In turn, teachers have accused exams officers of being isolated and sometimes unapproachable, and very controlling over imparting information on exams delivery, while citing the JCQ rule book as the basis for all their authority and actions.
The EOA has sought to encourage a closer relationship and understanding between the teaching and non-teaching communities to help avoid misunderstandings over how the exam system operates. It has also tried to encourage exams officers to lead the way in this communication process to help support teachers and their students. The emphasis has always been to promote an exam system that is an extension of the learner’s educational experience and not just a clinical exam process devoid of sensitivity and wellbeing.
Just as teachers and SLTs must stop treating exams officers and their team as low level administrators, with no relationship to the overall educational experience of learners, so exams officers must stop following a robotic system approach to exams delivery. They are part of a centre’s team and should be supported and acknowledged accordingly if we are to avoid more teachers being taken to task over malpractice.
Both teachers and exams officers need to be fully engaged with the drawing up of all JCQ documentation used in centres so everyone is fully aware of the processes and no one is left exposed to future malpractice because of a lack of communication and accessible documentation which drives the whole exam process.