June 30, 2015 by Sian Rowland
We glide around the hall like soft-soled dancers in a slow-motion ballet. Along the columns we flow, checking that water bottles are label-free and that spare paper and calculators are supplied where needed. We are the exam invigilators- I like to think of us as the birthing partners of the exam process. While the students do the hard work we’re there to ensure the process is as comfortable and pain-free as possible. If, afterwards, the students don’t remember us we will have done our jobs well.
I’ve been invigilating exams this year as the exam months of May and June are often fairly quiet for me. As it happens, this June has super busy but it’s always good to start with some dates in the self-employed diary on which to build.
Exam invigilators are the focus of many jokes and sketches (my favourite being the Armstrong and Miller sketch) but what do you actually know about what we do? Here’s what I learnt from my newest job:
1) We’re employed directly by the school. There isn’t a bank of invigilators sitting in a waiting room ready for work and doing calf stretches. We’re members of the school team and it’s up to the school to do all the boring admin stuff like paperwork, clearance and training. Which leads me to point 2…
2) We are trained. Yes, there’s training in invigilation. Much to my disappointment we didn’t have to practice our walking up and down and our shoes weren’t checked for levels of squeakiness but there are loads of rules. We are given a large folder and while there isn’t an exam because that would be some weird existential wormhole thing, there is an expectation that we read and learn the rules. Someone’s exam results could depend on it which means we have to take everything seriously. There’s also obligatory child protection training too which makes sense and obligatory DBS (formerly CRB) checks.
3) We’re part of the staff team but we’re also independent. Unlike the old days, teachers in the school are not allowed to invigilate public exams. They are banned from the rooms and should they dare to attempt to nip through the hall as a shortcut, are sternly reminded of their trespass by head of examinations. The only exceptions to this rule are the language teachers who are allowed to sit in on the listening exams but we keep a beady eye on them.
4) It’s active invigilation. There’s no sitting down and reading a book or flicking through a magazine and I can’t get on with my writing. We may sit down occasionally if we’re exceptionally tired but tend to sit for only a minute at a time. The rest of the time we’re walking around and our eyes have to be everywhere. If a student puts their hand up for water, more paper or to go to the loo we have to notice within seconds so they can get on with their exams. Two and a half hour A level exams are killers and hour long exams feel like a doddle after a hot afternoon of Spanish A2. With nothing else to occupy our minds we count the left-handers, do mental arithmetic and play word games with the names on the honour boards. It’s odd but the first hour is the worst. Perhaps it takes that long to enter a calm, meditative frame of mind where doing nothing feels (relatively) guilt-free.
5) Our work starts long before the students arrive. We label the desks, set out the identity cards, count and check exam scripts, set out equipment (there are bound to be students who forget pretty much everything), write up the whiteboards with all the exam info and make sure the silence signs and mandatory warning signage is out and on display. Once the students are in we make sure they’re sitting in the right place, take in any rogue mobile phones and other banned items and hand out scripts when told. I try to make sure I look serious yet approachable and that if a student looks up during the exam they’ll see a friendly face rather than someone glaring at them! While it’s definitely not rocket science there is a clear set of duties and there’s a satisfaction in doing those duties well.
Why the heck would anyone want to be an exam invigilator? It’s boring, it’s poorly paid and we’re right at the bottom of a very long food chain of staff. We’re beholden to the wishes of a team of exam staff who are on the edge of their nerves and we attend every whim of a room full of teens. My fellow invigilators are housewives and househusbands, business owners, retired teachers and self-employed professionals like me. While it’s good to have the work it’s seasonal and just adds a little to the portfolio (and the holiday fund). For me, school feels like a natural environment but above all I like the feeling that in some small way we’re helping these students along the road to the real world and that’s the reward really. It’s in helping the next generation of youngsters on the next steps to adulthood but mostly in remembering that we’ll never have to sit these exams again ourselves.
As for those invigilator sketches- I wrote my own one in my head during GCSE Physics between handing out calculators and formulae booklets. It’s being recorded by Crooked Pieces for their podcast And Then She Said A Funny Thing. I’m proud to have joined to pantheon of invigilator jokers.