A-levels, choice and market forces

There’s been discussion in the news of AQA’s decision to scrap A-level Art History. Inevitably, this brings out all sorts of comments concerning philistinism/ class issues/ your choice of pet hate.  There are even some who wilfully misinterpret the reasons for the decision (I can only assume they haven’t read AQA’s statement), assuming it’s about it being a “soft subject”. (Incidentally, I don’t recall anyone saying it was a soft subject in the past – that epithet is typically reserved for qualifications with the word “studies” in their name!)

I can understand the dismay of those outraged by the decision. I’ve felt the same when other things went in the past (for example, there were some fascinating options at O-level and/or A-level back in the 80s – eg Logic, Greek Literature in Translation…and more recently the removal of the AEAs was a great shame).

It doesn’t even appear to be just about it being a subject with few entries (though it is); exam boards maintain other minority subjects (inevitably cross-subsidising from the larger entry areas).  Apparently the issue is recruiting sufficient specialist examiners.

Now this does not surprise me. I have had four friends who’ve at various times been Chief or Senior Examiners – i.e. the people setting the papers and determining the markscheme. They put an awful lot of time and effort in, and the financial rewards are certainly not great.  Unless they have some sort of private income, they can’t do this as their sole occupation, but there will be very very busy times when it’s tough to do it alongside a “normal” job. It’s not a job in which popularity and appreciation come your way readily, either – how many candidates or their teachers will make a point of expressing their admiration for a well set paper on social media or to the awarding body? But needless to say, unpopular papers attract endless villification (and note I don’t say “bad” papers – some perfectly good ones attract completely unwarrented opprobrium simply for daring to require candidates to think for themselves rather than recall previous papers). Inevitably, anyone setting papers will have to grow a thick skin – I remember getting an amused message from a friend who’d set the paper for one January module, saying “Hey, result, I’ve just been called a bastard on Twitter!”.

I know far more who’ve been involved at the lower level – marking the exams (indeed, in the dim and distant past, I’ve done exam marking and external moderation of coursework myself).  It is not a fun job. You come home from your normal teaching job, and sitting in the corner of your room, there is a big pile of envelopes looking at you reproachfully.  You open the first one up – not one that’s too thick, as that’s scary – but even that medium sized one is going to occupy your attention for quite some time. You know you must give full attention to what you are doing – it’s someone’s future in your hands – but when it gets past midnight and only the matchsticks are holding your eyelids up, it is hard to feel positive about a semi-legible paper which uses all sorts of strange methods, and requires you to do a lot of checking for “follow through” marks because they are horrendously careless. To cap it all, you can almost guarantee there’ll be asterisks and arrows pointing you to where this question is continued elsewhere on the paper, so you’re endlesly flipping back and forth. So no, it wasn’t something I enjoyed, and it didn’t pay me enough to be worth doing it for the money. I did it because it helped my teaching, simple as that. That’s why I stopped – once I’d got what I wanted out of it, why put myself through all that again?

Under our current system, difficulties – I might even say a crisis  – in recruitment of examiners is inevitable. You are asking people to undertake a high-pressure role with inflexible deadlines at a rate of pay substantially below their normal one! Combining this role with their regular one will, in many cases, lead to working substantially more hours than the European Working TIme Directive would indicate to be appropriate.

If the awarding bodies started paying examiners more, this would result in increased costs to schools for exam entries.  If they offered payment to schools for cover for the teacher who is an examiner, to enable them to do the job in a slightly less rushed way, that would have the same effect.  The exam boards aren’t all run by profit-making companies (though Edexcel/Pearson is), but they are in a compettive market. Differences in costs to the school, unless they are very minor, will have consequences.


Given the government seems to think education is all about exams, you might hope they’d offer financial support to facilitate examining being done by competent, non-stressed, non-fatigued individuals …. Oh, I see something fat and pink winging its way past the window.  But if they want to offer a broad range of good, solid subjects, and get them marked reliably, they are going to need to put the investment in.


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