DfE accuses exam board chief of “making excuses for lamentable failure” in marker shortage row

A war of words has broken out between an exam board chief and the Department for Education over claims of an examiner staffing shortage.

Mark Dawe, chief executive of exam board OCR, raised concerns earlier this week that his board may have to find another 5,000 examiners to meet a rise in demand, which he attributed to the government’s subject reforms.

His concerns were given short shrift by the Department for Education which told the Independent newspaper OCR should make way for other exam boards if it can’t recruit enough markers.

But Mr Dawe, speaking to Schools Week after an OCR policy event today, hit back by accusing the DfE of “missing the point”. Adding: “The whole system is struggling to get examiners and we are trying to open a debate about how is best to achieve it. For them to come out and say that is not the point.”

But his words have triggered another angry response from Whitehall. A senior DfE source told Schools Week: “Perhaps Mr Dawe wants to stop making excuses for his organisation’s lamentable failure to deliver in recent years and focus on delivering their exams this year.”

The comments relate to OCR coming close to missing the publishing deadlines for last summer’s A levels.

A Whitehall source told the Guardian at the time a repeat of “last summer’s scramble” could trigger ministerial intervention and a reappraisal of the role of the exam boards.

An Ofqual investigation into the incident is still ongoing. It is believed a report will be published soon.

Mr Dawe, responding to the DfE’s criticism, said while last year was “challenging” they delivered results on time, and are well on target to meet this year’s deadlines.

Perhaps Mr Dawe wants to stop making excuses for his organisation’s lamentable failure to deliver in recent years

He said: “I’m amazed they are firing back with such venom. There is an agreement across the boards and school leadership groups that this is a problem that needs to be tackled properly, rather than rolling from year to year with people struggling.

“It’s not about criticising anybody. It’s about identifying there is a problem and working together to deal with it.”

OCR said the narrow miss last year was down to software issues and a shortage of markers.

OCR has spent thousands of pounds this year advertising for new markers on buses and in the pages of cruise holiday magazines to meet the demand, particularly in subjects such as history, English literature, sociology and religious studies.

And, speaking after an OCR policy debate on shortage issues today, he said his board may consider looking at recruiting examiners from other English speaking countries.

“We can’t spend thousands of pounds on advertising but if that’s just fighting a tide it doesn’t matter how much we throw at it, as we will always be struggling.

“Following the lead of Cambridge Assessment, I don’t see why it isn’t something we can’t piggy on the back off with English speaking countries that are doing IGCSEs and vocational A levels.

“Online marking and online standardisation means there is limited need for face-to-face contact. But we have to maintain the quality of marking.

“My preference is to have a self-sustaining system in this country. We’re facilitators, it’s part of schools’ responsibilities.”

He added: “If we want an exam system with examiners that are teachers we have to find a way for everyone that can make it work.

“These reforms require more examiners – that’s a fact. We as exam boards accept we have a responsibility, but it’s a whole system responsibility.”

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