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Workload, has it reached crisis point?


Workload is the amount of work an individual has to do. There is a distinction between the actual amount of work and the individual's perception of the workload. Workload can also be classified as quantitative (the amount of work to be done) or qualitative (the difficulty of the work).


In the recent iEOA survey, 86% of respondents highlighted the growing problem of workload for the examination officer community. In an earlier article on wellbeing, it referenced the potential consequences for individuals operating within this pressurised education and exam sector and how those kinds of stresses are passed onto students who they are trying to support.


If one looks back over the 18 years that the EOA and the iEOA have been undertaking surveys of this community this is not a new theme. The question is, has workload reached a critical level where the system is under threat. One might suggest that evidence of this fracture in the exam system has already taken place with the JCQ having to set up a Malpractice Commission. There is a growth in individuals and centres making mistakes and this may be the result of an overworked and under-resourced workforce.


When one analysis’s the workload issue from the survey responses there are a number of points to consider. The response from experienced exams officers is the same as those who are new to role. Workload has gone up and/or support and staffing within centres have gone down so resulting in an increase in workload. There is clearly an issue over workload in relation to how this role is managed and the support individual exams officers get. Providing external training courses sounds good, but exam officers still have to go back to their centres and operate all these changes within their existing centre culture.


Many respondents reported a decline in additional administrative support as SLT focus on securing their teaching commitments. However, without sufficient administrative support in a key area like exams, teachers, especially new teachers, are under additional pressure because they do not have the backup that seasoned exam officer teams provide.  


For those new to role, it is not surprising that staff churn is high because on top of their exam officer role they are often asked to cover a range of duties which if not managed appropriately can lead to mistakes, maladministration and even malpractice because of the pressures some of these people are being put under. Many respondents in the survey sought more support and understanding from their heads and SLTs in order to help secure a safe and effective exam system for all their learners.


On workload, the majority of respondents pointed the finger at the JCQ which represents the key awarding bodies and as each year goes by, centres complained that they felt more and more was being ‘dumped’ on them. Some stated that many of the processes and practices that underpin exams delivery were now being funded through centres which were already under immense stress.


Some blamed workload on the growing raft of JCQ policies, an inflexible inspection regime and the lack of continuity and clarity from different Awarding Bodies, which are sometimes at odds with JCQ communications, which is very unsettling when one usually considers the JCQ as the industry standard on exams delivery.


There are three aspects of the workload issue that need to be addressed if the education and exam system is going to avoid a complete meltdown and lose its experienced invaluable exam officer community. The first step must be for the JCQ and the wider awarding body community to stop issuing directives through its documentation and secure a more consultative approach which gets everyone on board, encourages greater shared accountability both internally and externally in the interests of all learners.


It would also help remove this perception that all workload associated with exams delivery is the fault of the JCQ exam body community. In reality, exam officers are there to do a job and do need to comply with the exams system guidelines, but that system that is being promoted needs to be fit for purpose, otherwise, the demands it places on this community at times, becomes unattainable, and boarding on unacceptable by some.


Secondly, exam officers need to seek more corporation and support from their centre colleagues as they provide the interface between the internal culture driven by teaching and learning, and the external controls dictated by external influences through the public exam system. It is vital that this community are clear about what needs to be done and why, so they are responding to student and staff needs appropriately, around an effective and secure exam centre culture.


We are all here to support the educational outcomes through our existing public exam system but being given a greater sense of ownership and engagement at the centre level, will give everyone a better perspective on what is critical to their role when considering workload issues.


Thirdly, exams officers are not employed by the awarding body community, and cannot be micromanaged effectively from a distance, but are key facilitators who operate across a range of centres and cultures who need centres to respond and acknowledge their levels of responsibility and accountability.


Both centres and awarding bodies generate the bulk of the workload attached to this role and therefore it is their responsibility to help support the CPD of this community (with 97% highlighting CPD as a critical factor in supporting their role in the recent survey) so workload is dealt with more effectively and the systems in centres are more secure because of the reduction in ‘churn’ of staff expertise.


The debate over what form this continuing professional development should take is being picked up in a separate article. There is no doubt, however, that most training provided in the past and continues today is not based upon continual professional development but more around functionally and compliance. We know from 18 years experience that this approach to supporting this community is not enough.


These are very important elements which drive an effective and secure exam system but if this style of training only focuses on the system, it will not help develop a more professional receptive and responsive workforce, which can respond to issues such as malpractice more effectively, so raising confidence in the exam system and securing a more stable workforce.


The iEOA will continue to lobby for the establishment to invest more in the examination officer personnel directly, through programmes that enhance their own personal development and move away from spending declining budgets on expensive external programmes.