Superintending – The Examination Game

The Secondary teacher, Autumn 1980

The important information comes the last week in May – the centre. The large brown envelope contains the book of General Instructions for Superintendents. It is Confidential and must be returned to the office with the centre Signature Roll at the end of the examinations. The envelope also contains two pre-addressed postcards, one to mail immediately confirming acceptance of appointment and a second to be sent when you decide your address – not the Centre address, mind you – for the duration of the examinations.

You spend the remaining few days studying the Book of Instructions! It is a marvellous document which helps you along every step of the way from the day preceding the exams, when you collect the box containing the papers to the final day when you dump everything at the nearest railway station. But, in case any aspect of your duties is not sufficiently clear you are furnished with another document, not as elaborately produced, entitled Day-To-Day Instructions to Superintendents. Other communi­cations include two closely written pages on Instructions to Candidates, more instructions on the cover of Rolla an lonad and finally, Special Instuctions to Super­intendents: List of Corrections. Invariably there are some small errors in the printing of the examination papers and this document is the result of a thorough fine-combing by vigilant inspectors. One interesting instruction to super­intendents on this document is "You need not read out a notice if there is no candidate in your centre taking an examination paper to which it refers". There must be some terribly stupid superintendents around!

Armed with this weight of expertise you arrive at the centre the day before to set it up. There you meet a big black box containing all the paraphernalia of the examina­tions. Everything enclosed is carefully listed. You also meet your Attendant, a requirement for every super­intendent. He helps you prepare the centre and remains outside the door for the duration of the examinations at your beck and call. This important job commands a wage of £2.85 per day a sure sign that attendants belong to no union. It is probably true to say that his is the lowest paid job in the country! But there is more to it. In many schools, in return for his appointment he is given jobs to do during his hours of waiting. The Headmaster may use him as a general cleaner-upper of end-of-term rubbish.

The big day arrives and you're in plenty of time. No matter how often you've superintended there's a certain amount of tension this first morning. Did I bring the keys of the boxes? Am I forgetting some vital instruction? The candidates are also excited. Some futures hang in the balance. You read the Instructions to Candidates as light-heartedly as possible. A few laughs are good for lowering the tension level. You distribute the answer-books, blue for Lower, pink for Higher. The time creeps on. You look repeatedly at the envelope to satisfy yourself you have the correct papers. Suddenly they're distributed: the exam has begun and you relax.

Well . . . not really. Officially it is forbidden to relax. The Instructions command one to give one's entire attention to the work of superintendence. It is forbidden to read, write, knit or engage in any occupation other than superintendence. There used to be a specific prohibition against drinking tea or coffee during the course of the examination. This year, in addition, one cannot even bring in the newspaper. Thank God I don't smoke because that's also forbidden. The superintendent must be on constant guard duty against anybody seeking to enter the centre during the course of the examination. The only exceptions are the attendant, when summoned, or a Departmental official on presenting an admission order. Come to think of it, I never did see one of those orders!

Despite all the instructions I have just come across a case that is not covered. It's ten minutes into the examination and a girl has just fainted. She's flat out down in the hall and emitting painful moans. Under one rule I can permit her to leave the hall because she is ill. But as she is unable to leave of her own volition — she's just fainted — what do I do? Yes, summon the attendant! But she's too small and the fainted girl is too large and one can't move the other. I can consult another rule and expel the candidate for behaviour liable to jeopardise the successful conduct of the examination. But she's insensible to my order! I have but one recourse: take her in my arms and leave her prone body outside. But, I am forbidden to leave the centre during the course of the examination! However, I decide to take the law into my own hands because she is disturbing the centre. I lift her up and make my way to the door. The motion brings her to, she screams and slaps me in the face! I drop her to her feet and return to the rules with what grace I can.

But the majority of days are far less exciting. The hours drag, punctuated by the morning coffee and the afternoon tea. In the past most schools provided hospitality, not only morning and afternoon snacks but huge lunches and, in some places, even the Bottle on the table! Whether it was post-prandial, sleeping superintendents or merely galloping inflation, rare is the school now that provides more than the cuppa. It's dangerous to have a pint before lunch or to eat too much.

Mid-afternoon is the lowest point of the day. The body lurches for sleep. Even walking around is unable to shake off the soporific afternoons of overcast Junes. There is no instruction on how to keep awake! Stories are told of superintendents falling asleep — to the delight of the candidates. In one case he slept right through despite the riot of moving bodies and flying missiles. The only relief is a pre-mature departure of the candidates. Some vocational schools are great: the candidates are all departed within the hour. Convents can be terrible: the candidates daren't depart until the final whistle is blown. How terribly un-thoughtful headmistresses can be!

The Art examinations enliven a dull routine. In the Leaving Certificate there are four papers over four exam periods and the four results have to be dispatched together. The Examination Centre has to be reconstructed for Still Life. All my rectangles and regular rows disappear and half-moons take over. The advice and assistance of the art teacher are available and direct responsibility is taken out of the hands of the super­intendent. The candidates can't really cog—every angle is different—and the only problem is the ensuing mess of speckled paint and splashed water. Life Sketching is a gift, lasting a mere hour and giving you time to get downtown and do a bit of shopping. Models are paid £1.50 and some can be very awkward and funny. In order to get some boys to remain steady for the fifteen-minute pose one would need to spray them with some strong lacquer!

The final days eventually arrive. The later you're on, the more you're paid. To have a candidate taking Italian or German gets you right to the last day. I should like to see many more candidates take Economic History; it also appears on the final day. The Instructions tell me to draw a map of the centre on the first day but I leave it towards the end. Probably the most exciting occupation of the last days is making up the expenses. The summer holidays are coming and they're an expensive time. You squeeze the last legitimate penny possible into the Form of Account. You extract the last mile that is possible.

I heard of one teacher who put in a claim for a box of matches. After every examination you put the answer books into a large envelope and you seal it with red wax. This teacher did not smoke and claimed that he had to buy matches specially in order to melt the wax. The Department refused to pay but my man persisted and after three letters he received his penny-halfpenny!
The final act is paying the attendant and depositing the boxes at the local railway station. Then it's the journey home, a few pints of satisfaction and a few hundred quid at the end of July.

There's a new instruction this year which states that superintendents should quote their Payroll Number in the space provided on the Form of Account otherwise delay-will occur in issuing payment. And that would be terrible!

JOHN MURPHY is a secondary teacher with fifteen years' superintending experience.