Wednesday Wisdom

May 22, 2024

The Examiner's Eye

By Patrick Cragg

The Examiner's Eye


It’s late May, which means many students are deep into their exams. Here in the UK, GCSEs and A-Levels are in full swing, and many Tooled Up families are rallying to support their teenager in making it through exam season, and beginning the long wait for Results Day. But do you ever wonder what happens to all those exam papers after students have put down their pens?

Enter the examiners.

Examining is fascinating work, brilliant professional development for teachers who sign up, a long and tough process that demands a huge sacrifice of time, often eye-opening and sometimes heartbreaking.

I think many students and parents would be hugely reassured by seeing the examining process in action. I have over ten years’ experience with different exam boards marking GCSE and A-Level, and I can honestly say that everyone involved is trying to mark fairly, consistently and with a view to rewarding students’ hard work. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, or that examiners always get it totally right! But when your teenager does step out of their exam, they can trust that their paper is in safe hands.

Examining gives you a sense of perspective. One of the main benefits of examining is that you get to read responses at all attainment levels, with a much wider range of ideas and approaches than you could encounter in a single school. For a teacher this is extremely useful: a crash course in what works and what doesn’t when coaching your own students in the exam, and a peek at how teachers around the country have been teaching the same material! Examining can make you more aspirational as a teacher. The quality of what some 16-year-olds can do in an exam is astonishing. Some students have a truly impressive command of textual details and the ability to weave them together with fluent and sophisticated writing.

There’s another side of that experience, though, which is that examining also makes you painfully aware just how much inequality and difficulty is baked into the exam system. Don’t forget that in state schools in the UK, the percentage of students who achieve Grade 5 in their GCSEs for both English and Maths is just 45%. So examining also means reading a lot of work by students who struggled with their exams. It makes the work of rewarding them fairly, and doing so with a sympathetic eye, all the more important. But it’s also likely to make the whole exam system seem just a bit unfair to those children.

And just occasionally, the process raises a smile. I turned to the last page of one paper and found that the student had used their spare five minutes at the end of a test to write a few jokes for the examiner’s amusement. I don’t, however, recommend this as a good use of exam time!


Knowing a bit about how examiners work can help to reassure students that the process of marking their exams is transparent and fair.

Examiners are well-trained. We have to prove that we’re subject specialists with some experience of teaching at the relevant level when we apply for a marking role. Before we’re let loose on “live” papers, there are multiple rounds of “standardisation” to show that we can mark to a consistent standard. And while we mark, our work is routinely monitored and checked. Examiners have a supervisor on hand sampling their work as they mark, offering feedback, and answering any queries.

Examiners have strict professional standards. You can’t just pull out your laptop on the train and start marking exams! Examiners are required to work in privacy and quiet, and not to share or discuss their work. We look at every single page of every paper to make sure no work has gone unread. Did you know that examiners have access to a safeguarding team in case a student uses their exam paper to disclose a personal issue, or writes something that causes concern about their wellbeing?

Examiners want to reward students. We understand that what we’re reading was done in exam conditions by a stressed-out teenager! Certainly in English exams, students aren’t penalised for tiny mistakes. A mis-quoted line from a play, an incorrect character name, or maybe you wrote “Dickens” when you meant “Shakespeare” or wrote “novel” when you meant “poem”: none of this is punished by examiners. There’s never any sense when you mark exams that you’re trying to catch students out.

Examiners sweat the small stuff. We take the time to re-read and re-consider awarding a single mark higher and lower. When we’re not sure how to award a mark, or the student has written something unexpected, we refer their paper up to a team leader for advice.


What can parents and their teenagers take away from the experience of examiners?

Make sure you know how to get marks in the exam. Exam technique is something different to subject ability, and it needs to be built into teaching and revision. Just as important as knowing the answers in an exam, is knowing how to express them in a given time and in a way that is rewarded! You need to know which skills are required in each question: for example in English, which questions require you to do comparative work, and which require that you bring in social or historical context?

Timings are key too. A 20-mark written answer should probably be substantially longer than an 8-mark written answer. It’s heartbreaking when you read the work of a clearly talented student who just ran out of time.

Examiners want to reward you but they can’t do the work for you. Get into a habit of checking what you’ve written and making some quick corrections. Have you explained yourself clearly to someone reading your work with fresh eyes? Have you fixed as many errors as you can find?

Think about presentation. It’s very hard to keep up your best handwriting when you’ve got to write for two solid hours! But remember that in today’s system, exam papers are scanned into a computer and marked on-screen. Some “neat” handwriting becomes difficult to read if it’s very small or very dense. So set answers out clearly, write in paragraphs, remember to write the number of the question you’re doing, and keep crossings-out neat. If writing is hard to decipher then you run the risk that the examiner might lose the thread of what you’re saying.

More isn't always better! In English, many three-page essays are excellent, and many ten-page essays are underwhelming. You can’t do the best standard of work at top speed; it’s better to use the time carefully, think about your work, and produce a reasonable amount of high-quality writing.

Just a reminder that whilst I've marked English at GCSE and A-Level for different exam boards at different times, my comments are a general discussion of my experience of examining, and not intended to reflect any specific exam or board.

Are you a Tooled Up member?

Tooled Up offers plenty of help and support for our members as you help your children prepare for and sit their exams. A great place to start is our Quick Guide To Exam Preparation, which contains an overview of practical tips and Tooled Up resources.

Reducing exam stress begins with being prepared, and our popular Smart Reviser suggests plenty of ways to make revision more productive and less boring. If you’re looking ahead to exams next Summer, try these Questions to ask teenagers ahead of their exams, which will suggest where revision should be focused and how to plan their time.

This recent webinar from Dr Kathy Weston and Patrick Cragg covers Exam Stress from a parent’s perspective and the perspective of a teacher/examiner: full of useful advice and tips for a productive and panic-free exam season.

Finally, remember the importance of your teen’s physical wellbeing in being ready for exam season. Explore these resources on nutrition and sleep for more information.