Inside Exams

Podcast series two now available

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Teacher Craig Barton is back with series two of Inside Exams, the podcast that gives you an access all areas pass to snoop around behind the scenes at AQA.

He’ll be meeting the people who write and mark your students’ exams, as well as pioneering teachers, to get answers to all the questions you ponder throughout the school day.

© AQA 2019

What results in 1.2 million certificates?

Series one
Summer bonus: episode two | 12 August 2019

In this Inside Exams podcast episode, we talk about what goes into making results day happen. AQA’s head of marking, customer engagement manager, orders and results manager, and head of curriculum for religious studies talk through their roles before, during, and after results day – whilst reminiscing on how they felt picking up their own results.

Featured in this podcast

Peter Hawcroft – Head of Marking at AQA

Chris Tetley – Orders and Results Operations Manager at AQA

Sinead Morrell – Customer Engagement Manager at AQA

Esther Zarifi – Head of Curriculum for Religious Studies at AQA

Peter Hawcroft: My name is Peter Hawcroft, and I’m the Head of Marking here at AQA. So, the lead up to results day, for my team, is the busiest period of our year. Ultimately, my team, once the candidates have sat their exams, we are responsible for making sure that all those candidates’ exam papers get marked by trained examiners. And we have some very strict deadlines. So, results days, obviously, are immovable dates. So, by the end of July roughly, this year, we will have marked approximately ten million exam papers.

Chris Tetley: My name is Chris Tetley, and I am Orders and Results Operations Manager. So, being in the results team, we are the final piece in the operational jigsaw. So, we ensure the safe delivery of results. So, we produce the e-documents that get uploaded to EAQA for schools and colleges to download, and to give results slips to students. We produce and check the EDI file which goes to schools and colleges, which they import into their MIS systems. And we share results with third parties. So, for example, UCAS, to support students who are going to university. With the DfE for the school and college performance tables, and also, with the Welsh government for the Welsh examination database.

In terms of leading up to the results. So, we do about three weeks of checks, leading up to results days, and runs right through until the Friday before GCSE results day.

Sinead Morrell: My name is Sinead Morrell, and I am the Customer Engagement Manager at AQA. We start preparing for results day, pretty much as soon as the last results day is finished in that we look at the number of calls we had this year, and then look at what that means for the next year. So, there’s always forecasting that goes on as to how many calls we’re going to expect, and how many people we need to take those calls. So, there’s a lot of logistics involved in this. And we need to be making sure that we have enough people to cover the calls. So, what actually that means is that we do take on about five times more staff than we normally have.

So, we usually have about 19 staff full time. And in the results day, the kind of results period, we go up to about 80 members of staff. That is just simply because of the fact that the number of calls we get, and particularly on results day, is up about 200% higher than what we normally get. So, obviously we need to be making sure that we have enough people on. And we also do a lot of intensive training for everybody that we take on.

Esther Zarifi: My name is Esther Zarifi. I’m the Head of Curriculum for Religious Studies, and I also was an RE teacher for 12 years, before I came to work at AQA.

In the run up to results day, in the curriculum team, we will be working quite a lot with our assessment design team, following the awarding meetings. So, I will be looking, quite closely, at the grade boundaries for GCSE and A-level religious studies, across all the options. And then from there, we’ll be preparing information ready to go to teachers. So, getting ready for queries that teachers might have once they get their students’ results, getting ready to explain where the boundaries all are on the website, those kind of operational things. But also, briefing other teams, so, like our customer services team, our relationship managers, getting everyone ready so that we know what’s coming, when results happen, so that we can give teachers the information that they’re looking for.

Peter Hawcroft: On EDI day, we’ll be in from 7:00 in the morning, and we are there, just in case any schools have opened their results, and they have identified that possibly they’re missing a result that they thought they should have. They are a fraction of a percent of what we actually process. But where these do occasionally happen, it’s really important for us, that from 7:00 on EDI day, that we have people available on the phone, to resolve those queries, as quick as we can, so that on actual results day, the day after EDI day, when a candidate turns up to school, to see how they’ve done, they have got all the results there that they were expecting to receive.

Chris Tetley: So, results day itself, although the results have been issued, the hard work doesn’t stop there. So, the team are their first line of escalation for any queries from customer services about results documents that we’ve issued. So, that could be anything from… there’s an issue with the way a result is displayed on one of the customer facing systems. It could be that they’ve got a question about a particular result that has been issued. It is a completely varied day.

Part of the past results team also send results to overseas universities, to support students who are studying abroad. I guess an interesting fact is that, here in Manchester, we hold a results archive, that dates back to 1881, although we don’t get many requests for those anymore.

Sinead Morrell: Pretty much when you come in, first thing, it is already busy. So, we open up at 6:00 in the morning on results day, and also on the day before results day, which is a day that the results obviously go to the schools. So, we open at 6:00am and  from then calls start coming in, and everybody is just making sure that everything gets answered. Also, there’s a great buzz in the building. Everyone’s always kind of… there’s a lot going on, everyone’s really… you know, there’s a lot to do. There’s always some really good food brought in, which is really nice. There’s always bacon sandwiches, and stuff, being brought around, kind of keep the troops going.

And mainly what we’re looking at, we’re dealing with calls from… the majority of the calls are from exams officers, about 40% of the calls we get are from exams officers. But we also get calls from students and parents, they’re our next biggest number. And then teachers as well. So, as well as obviously just getting it to the right person, we’re just talking to people, offering kind of a sympathetic ear sometimes, and just kind of… yeah, allaying fears of things that might have gone wrong.

A lot of the job is kind of listening and giving them other options. So, it might be kind of telling them about resits, or other things that they can do, or any of our sort of [postal] services that we offer. Making sure that they know about that. Just kind of listening, making sure that they’re kind of feeling better, and then also guiding them to things that might help, and also guiding them back to their school. Because at the end of the day, often the school will be able to give them a really good idea about what they can do next.

Esther Zarifi: On results day itself, for personal interest, I tend to have a little spy on Twitter, Facebook groups. It’s really interesting to see what people’s responses are to their students’ results. People hashtag with GCSE, religious studies, things like that, see what people are coming up with, with what they’ve got and things. So, that’s really nice. And then it’s just really waiting for any queries to come through. People start to analyse their students’ results straightaway, and maybe have questions. But actually, results day itself, I suppose, can… well hopefully will be fairly quiet. The customer services team are on hand to help with queries, but I’m also around so that they can escalate anything that’s religious study specific to me, and I can hopefully give some more insight where it’s needed, and explain things, if people aren’t sure.

Because we’ve got quite a lot of complicated options, and it gets a bit confusing looking at all the different boundaries that come out. I think on results day, that I’ve experienced working here, so far, it has been fairly routine. I think as a teacher, you spend a lot of time just looking at your own students’ results, looking at who got what, whether there’s any surprises from that side, I think before you maybe get in, to look at the exam board side of it, and really analysing the differences between the boundaries from different years, and that kind of thing.

Peter Hawcroft: My team are predominantly focused on getting the exam papers marked. So, we mainly look at the activities leading up to results day. One of the most common factors is we’ll find that sometimes centres perhaps haven’t entered a candidate for an exam paper, or occasionally they may not have entered for the overall award. So, when those are identified we will rectify those. [Also], during the summer, we are working from 8:00am to 7:00pm, Monday to Friday. We’re open all day Saturday, we’re open all day Sunday as well, to try and provide as good a service to our examiners, who are marking all those exam papers.

Chris Tetley: It’s pretty routine. So, obviously, one thing we do start to plan for is the issue of certificates, in October and November. So, we issue around 1.2 million certificates for the summer series. Yes, so, we start planning ahead for that.

Sinead Morrell: So, once the results come out, everybody immediately says, even on results day, people start talking to us about post results. GCSE results day is our absolute busiest day of the year by far, even more than  A-level results day. But it does continue until sort of the end of September. And then it begins to sort of slowly kind of trickle off until next year.

Esther Zarifi: Following results day, we go into the most hectic term, I think, for teachers. And we use what happens on results day to inform… it will inform my work, certainly for the next term, if not longer, thinking about key things that have come out, from the exam series, and just start to help teachers to see where their students have maybe done really well, where their students could improve things, even down to like the level of different topics, different questions from different papers. And we can start to really dig in to the results that they got. So, I can sort of give people the overall trends of what has happened in religious studies, and they can then compare that with their own students, and start to see things that they might want to look at for their teaching, for the coming year.

Peter Hawcroft: So, I’ve been at AQA for 20 years now. Only three years in my most recent role as Head of Marking. And about six or seven years ago, I decided to come back into Operations, because what I really missed is what I think is what I really enjoy, and it is that sense of achievement of having a three month really intense piece of work, to get all those exam papers marked, reaching the point when we can say, we have zero outstanding marks for summer 2019, will be the point at which we know we have achieved what we have set out to do, not just at the start of that summer, in May when maybe the first exams have been sat, but going back the seven or eight months before that, where we’ve been doing nothing but planning on how we’re going to deliver more than 700 components, supported more than 25,000 examiners, and delivered around 10 million marks.

We do all that delivery in a three month period, but we can’t just turn up on 1 May and do that. So, we spend a lot of time getting ready to do that.

Chris Tetley: I guess, for me, the exciting part of being involved in the delivery of results and having a team who support that is that it’s almost a culmination of everyone’s hard work, not just across the business, but also for students and teachers as well.

Sinead Morrell: What I love most about my job is that no two days are the same. It can depend… you never know what’s going to kind of happen, where the calls are going to come from. And I also just really like that we’re helping people all the time.

Esther Zarifi: I was a teacher for 12 years before I came to work at AQA. I was also an examiner for a number of years. So, I’d sort of mark the papers, I had seen what was going on there, but obviously I’d taught my students the GCSE and  A-level specifications as well. So, results day, as a teacher, is a very different experience. It’s a bit of an emotional rollercoaster, to say the least. I used to be really sort of a combination of nervous and excited the night before, I think, not as nervous as I used to be before the exam day. But certainly excited to see what my students had got.

The overwhelming thing usually is absolute joy and pride in what they’ve done. I’ve been there for laughter, tears, all the sort of range of emotions. Because obviously different students achieve different things. But generally, it’s an amazing day actually to be in school. And it was never a day that you minded coming in to school, just to see them, and greet them when they’d got their results. It really is an amazing… it was an amazing time to be in school.

Peter Hawcroft: What do I remember about my own results day? So, I remember two very different experiences. So, for my GCSE results day, where thankfully I did quite well, I probably did better than I thought I was going to. So, I remember being really nervous. I remember lots of expectation from my parents, and I remember turning up to school, with all my friends at the time, and very nervously waiting to see what was on those result slips. And a sense of relief, a sense of achievement, and a sense of, that’s great, I can go on and do my  A-levels now, which was my plan. So, that was a really great experience.

Perhaps a slightly different experience was a couple of years later, when I got my  A-level results, and I knew deep down I hadn’t done well. I knew I hadn’t worked, I knew I hadn’t revised. So, it came as no surprise to me when I picked up my results slips that I’d done quite badly in my exams. So, that was a real disappointment for me, but I think it reflected the effort that I had put in. So, I didn’t really have any grounds to complain about it.

Chris Tetley: I guess when I was collecting my own results, there was certainly a bit of nervousness, a bit of excitement. How did I do, you know? You put yourself under so much pressure, don’t you? You never know how well it has gone. Talk to other people who are getting their results, and they have their own ideas how they’ve done. And I think it does put a lot of pressure on students, and yes, I certainly felt that at the time.

Sinead Morrell: What I remember about collecting my results is mainly the nerves. Because it was obviously such a big thing. You think, oh, my entire life rests on this. And as you get older, you realise it’s not maybe quite like that. But when you’re 18, it’s very hard to see past that. So, just being really, really nervous. And I remember, kind of, the first thing, when I got the slip, just skimming the grades. Not even looking to see what the grades were across from. So, I wasn’t like “Oh, I got a B in English.” It was just like, did I fail anything, was the immediate thing. And once you kind of realise that okay, I’d done okay, then going back and looking at it. But yes, the nerves and then I guess the euphoria of realising that actually everything was okay, and that I would have been … you know? I’m glad I don’t have to do it again. It’s obviously a very stressful time.

Esther Zarifi: I remember collecting my A-level results actually, because I was on holiday. So, I had to phone a friend. And I remember that being quite stressful. So, I remember crying in a very dramatic manner. But I did get into university, so, that was the overall thing, that I was so happy I’d got into where I wanted to get. But actually, I’ve been studying this year. So, I actually collected some results just a few weeks ago. So, I feel very kind of in touch with how results day feels. And all those nerves from all the years ago when I did my own school level work, sort of came back, as I logged onto the system to see what marks I had been given, for my essays and things that I’m doing at the moment.

So, it’s a nerve racking one, and you just don’t know what to expect. And I think lots of eventualities kind of run through your head, and you’re sort of trying to work out… well what about this, what about that, what if that happens? But I think, hopefully if you know you’ve done the work, and you know you’ve tried, then you get the right result in the end.