University students are being recruited to mark some GCSE and A-level papers this summer, the Guardian has learned.
AQA, the UK’s largest provider of academic qualifications, is inviting “postgraduates and undergraduates who have completed their first year of studies” in theology, philosophy and economics to undergo assessments in January and February, as part of a new pilot scheme. “Those who are successful will have the opportunity to join our community of examiners,” the job advertisements state. The students are being recruited “with the view to marking … exams in the summer of 2021”.
Two adverts have appeared on the King’s College London careers and vacancy website, under the headings “GCSE religious studies examiner” and “A-level economics examiner”.
One says: “We are seeking theology, religion and philosophy experts to mark our GCSE exams … If successful, you will be able to mark the Christianity paper from our GCSE [religious studies] specification.”
The other advert reveals AQA is looking for “economics experts” to mark “either paper 1 or paper 2” of its A-level economics exam.
All of these papers include long-form essay questions. The GCSE Christianity paper can determine half of a candidate’s religious studies GCSE grade while each A-level economics paper is usually worth a third of an A-level.
“I would be concerned about the lack of experience of these young people in this marking experiment at any time,” said Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union. “But this year, when our students are going to need fairness in their exams more than any other, because of the difficulties of the pandemic, I don’t think this is the right year to carry out this experiment.” He added: “We’re talking about religious studies and economics, where there could be more questions of judgment than on some other papers. It really doesn’t seem sensible.”
Helen Webb, AQA’s resourcing and talent manager, said the board was doing a “very small and very controlled pilot as we look to expand our pool of expert examiners in certain subjects”. There are some subjects and topics, she said, where it is “always a challenge to recruit enough good examiners. So we have to be open-minded if we want students to get their results on time and all our marking to be high quality.”
She said the pilot would “probably involve around 50 people” out of its 30,000-plus examiners. “They’ll receive training and have to pass two different tests before they’re allowed to do any real marking – and anyone allowed to mark real student answers will be constantly monitored in real time, to make sure they’re doing it well. If not, they’ll be stopped.”
It is not yet clear what proportion of AQA’s 10m exam scripts the examiners in the pilot will be asked to mark. An experienced AQA economics examiner, who has been teaching economics A-level for 15 years, told the Guardian that AQA usually started off new economics markers with 100 scripts each.
AQA said the focus of its pilot would be on graduates and postgraduates, but it is also “interested in assessing some undergraduates as well to see how they perform”. The exam board has used PhD and PGCE students (postgraduates who are training to be teachers) in the past and claims their marking has been “as good as that of new examiners who are qualified teachers”.
Research carried out by AQA and the University of Bristol in 2010 found that overall, undergraduates could mark part-scripts as accurately – but not as consistently – as existing GCSE English examiners, although there were some undergraduates who marked as well as the best examiners.
AQA revealed that “for some time now” it has been using newly qualified teachers and PGCE students as markers in some subjects. It also said university students would only be approved to mark the types of questions that they have shown they can mark well. “While the vast majority of our examiners will always be experienced teachers, that doesn’t mean that no one else can ever be suitable for the job,” said Webb. “For some types of questions in some qualifications, being good at following a mark scheme – combined with some knowledge of the subject – is enough.”
Ben Wood, chair of the National Association of Teachers of Religious Education (NATRE), said he thought pupils sitting the AQA religious studies GCSE in the summer may feel “concerned” and “worried” about the idea of an undergraduate marking their Christianity papers. “You do need to know what you’re talking about to mark this. You need to know some of the intricacies of Christian theology, particularly.”
He teaches the course himself and said experienced teachers who mark the paper understand how the course fits together, and how GCSE students might pull information from one area of the syllabus and use it appropriately in another area. “Being a humanity subject, it’s also not as simple as providing mark schemes and checking exam scripts against that,” he said.
Wood said the current cohort of GCSE and A-level state school students had been enormously disadvantaged by the pandemic and some had missed a huge amount of teaching time. “The thought of them potentially having somebody marking their paper who’s not well qualified to do that – it feels to me like we’re adding potentially more disadvantage on to more disadvantage. And they deserve better.”
An economics A-level teacher who works as a “team lead” examiner for AQA and wished to remain anonymous, said he was worried it might be possible for wrongly marked scripts to slip through AQA’s “strict” quality control system: “There are checks in place and they are good – but you don’t check every single bit of marking.”
An AQA spokesperson said this marker did not have knowledge of the pilot’s tests or monitoring processes and was jumping to the wrong conclusions.
Joe Kinnaird, a religious studies GCSE teacher and AQA examiner, said even if university students passed all of AQA’s standardisation and quality control tests, he does not think they will be capable of marking exams well. “Ultimately, I think you have to be a classroom teacher. It actually undermines the teaching profession to assume that people who are not qualified teachers are able to mark exam papers.”
Sarah Hannafin, a policy adviser at the National Association of Head Teachers, said when young people took an exam, their expectation was that markers were “experienced, serious teachers”.
With confidence already “quite rocky”, due to what happened with the exams last summer, she thinks it is vital young people and their parents feel they can rely on the exam-marking process. “I’d go so far as to say I think it would be a mistake for them [AQA] to go ahead with it.”
Ofqual, the exams regulator, said exam boards must ensure markers were competent. “What matters most is that markers are conscientious and follow the exam board’s mark schemes,” a spokesperson said. “Students can ask for the marking of their paper to be reviewed if they believe an error has been made.”
In response to the criticisms, a spokesperson for AQA said the pilot would in no way disadvantage this year’s students or affect the accuracy of their results.