Rainham School for Girls
Medway Council Instructions for all centres were that: "Children sitting the exam must arrive between 8.25am and 8.45am at the test centre. There will be no access to the building prior to 8.25am. Children arriving after 8.45am will be considered late arrivals and will not be admitted. Late arrivals will not be able to take the test on the day. As there are several hundred children taking the test at each centre, it is essential that the above timetable is strictly adhered to".
Unfortunately, there was only one desk for registering the children as they arrived, and with several hundred to process the queue rapidly built up. By 8.45 there were still lengthy queues as there was just one registration desk, with two people who had to find each child's name on a list which was not in alphabetical order and then put a sticker on them. Parents and children became anxious as Medway Council had warned that late arrivals would not be admitted. They then had to wait to be ushered by a third person to the test room. There was additional confusion in the queue, as there was a plant sale in a neighbouring part of the premises, so lots of adults often carrying plants were mixing with the children who were waiting. It is clear that the test did not begin until 9.50, some report it as 10 o’clock. Astonishingly a Medway Council spokeswoman on Radio Kent denied there had been queues and put the problem down to poor signage. Whilst this was indeed another problem, the parents did know where to go, they were in the queues, the single desk and mode of registration was the problem, not the signage! I have to say, as in so many other situations described here, I have heard or read so many accounts of the problem that she has been sadly misinformed, or else is engaged in a cover up. She also acknowledged that the Council had failed to check toilet provision in the school, and there were only three boy’s toilets. As a result, many children spent the whole of their two breaks in toilet queues rather than clearing their minds for the next test. According to the council, they are now aware that they need to check numbers of toilets next year – one would have thought this was basic planning. Overall the problems at Rainham arose because Medway Council hadn't used it before and there is some learning to be done (surely planning is rather essential for such an important event). Because of the late start, children who had been expected to finish the tests by 1.20, did not emerge until 2.50 p.m., making this a six and a half hour experience instead of five hours. Parents had been told to provide their children with a piece of fruit and a drink to keep them going, but the additional time meant that many were hungry and thirsty before the end, without sufficient nutrition for what is in effect a whole school day. Some were so stressed by the whole experience that they were unable to focus on the later tests and a number left early, some not to return, unfortunately distracting others by their departure. Parents arriving at 1.20 were not informed of the situation, although they could see children settling down for the verbal reasoning test, after children in other centres had finished and gone home. Some children reported that the noise of parents outside and those from plant sale was a further distraction. Never mind, Medway Council’s view is that children were not disadvantaged, as they were given the extra time after the 50 minute delay in starting. And it wasn't a huge difference in time that they were there. However much planning they put in there are always practical problems on the day, such as individual children who cannot cope with events on the day (I am not surprised!). There appears no understanding or acceptance that the chaos at the start will have affected ten year old children who were probably stressed already about the test.
Excerpt from a recent email received about Medway Council's statement: "They 'explain' a 50 minute delay but not the rest. I cannot believe that they can do this - it is absolute garbage: They didn't have enough signs to prevent people getting lost - their fault. The people directing parents didn't do a good enough job - their fault. They didn't process the line quickly enough - their fault. But no, they want to blame it on the parents! The parents that followed the instructions about being there in time - actually they got there early! Unbelievable!"
Chatham Grammar School for Boys
The first test was the English task, which appears to be inside a folded A3 sheet, with details on the outside and the test question and instructions inside. When the children opened the paper, there was no question just a blank page (why didn't the invigilators notice?). Children didn't know what to do. When one put up his hand to ask, he was snubbed by the invigilator. Eventually invigilators realised the problem after more children complained. A phone call was made to Medway Council, and the children were issued with fresh papers with the question on it, some 15 minutes after the official start. Reports suggest that the children were not given the full extra time, some say none, others just five minutes. Medway Council claimed that staff identified the problem before the children started the test, whilst they were being talked through it. It was just a slight delay at the beginning and was something relatively simple that the invigilators could overcome. My description of the above, based on a number of parental reports, was denied. Once again, are the parents and children lying, or is the Council sadly and seriously misinformed. Fortunately, this one can be cleared up easily as the parent of the first child to raise the question has already posted on a newspaper blog, so the child could be questioned! Either way, as well as the additional stress imposed by the incompetent administration, the children were disadvantaged. Three concerns: firstly as this was first test of the day, there would certainly have been initial disruption which would have had an unsettling effect on the children to say the least; secondly it is a dreadful start for the whole set of tests and so some children will have underperformed throughout the day; thirdly, the children lost time as there appears to have been no or little additional time added on, so their marks will in any case be lower than those from other centres. Why on earth were the papers not checked; such a blunder should never have happened and invigilators should have investigated immediately rather than put down the questioner.
Excerpt from a recent email: "My son took the test at Chatham Grammar for Boys School. The children from my sons school are adamant that a start time of 9.24 was given even though it should have started at 9.10. This delay was BEFORE the discovery of the missing instruction sheet. However the children were still made to finish at 10.14. In the statement is says " the start of the exam period was delayed by about 15 minutes as one sheet had not been distributed in the allocated time. The test centre staff identified this and distributed the paper before the test began ensuring that pupils had the full amount of time to complete the exam." Staff DID NOT IDENTIFY the missing sheet, a child did! He had to ask twice as he was given short thrift the 1st time. I know from speaking to other parents that children were crying, or writing inanely as they thought they had better write something! They also say "All children taking the test on Saturday had the correct amount of time for each paper and were given all their planned breaks to ensure they were not disadvantaged in any way." However my son said that the breaks were cut short. Also the fact that the verbal reasoning ended at 1.15 only 5 minutes later than the published 1.10 finish. So please can someone explain to me how a 15 minute delay the decreases to 5 minutes if no corners were cut on time? The council are basically saying our children are liars and that they got it wrong. How could so many children say the same thing?"
Parents of some children who sat the test at Bradfields School are also unhappy that their children were seated at double desks. This meant that they could see their neighbour’s paper, and also that they were easily distracted.
Medway Council Statement
Medway Council has issued the following statement: A Medway Council Spokesman said: “Candidates taking the test at Rainham School for Girls test centre started about 50 minutes later than planned as some parents had difficulty finding the school’s exam hall, and because we wanted to make sure all children who had arrived could take the test, the registration period overran.Staff advised parents dropping children off that the test would be starting later and would therefore end later than originally planned. Staff were also on hand to meet parents collecting their children, to explain the situation and let them know the test was going to overrun.At Chatham Grammar School for Boys test centre, the start of the exam period was delayed by about 15 minutes as one sheet had not been distributed in the allocated time. The test centre staff identified this and distributed the paper before the test began ensuring that pupils had the full amount of time to complete the exam. All children taking the test on Saturday had the correct amount of time for each paper and were given all their planned breaks to ensure they were not disadvantaged in any way. We would however like to apologise to parents and children for any confusion these delays may have caused". No doubt the many parents who have expressed contrary views to me (which form the basis of many of the assertions in this article), on the Medway Messenger blog (ignore the lunatic comments), and in complaints to Medway Council, will have views on the validity of this somewhat breathtaking explanation of the shambles.
In the two main cases, it is clear that the children concerned may be seriously disadvantaged. Many of the children will pass anyway in spite of this, and if applying for Chatham Boys or Girls, or the Maths School, their chances will be unaffected. If however, they are applying for Rochester Grammar or Rainham Mark who select on high scores, then any dip in the scores may (but probably won't considering the numbers) deprive them of a place. If the child does not pass, then the Medway Review may offer them the chance to recover a pass assessment, but this time, at Rainham Mark and Rochester Grammar, they will probably not be selected because of low scores. In any case the Medway Review, which I consider inherently unfair, is fraught with difficulties - see my analysis of the issues. Parents may choose to go to appeal, but the data suggests that children who have not passed the Medway tests will still face great difficulties in winning places at Rainham Mark, Rochester Grammar, Fort Pitt and the Maths School because the schools are full.
The 2010 tests
As if this was not bad enough, this is the second year running there have been major problems with the administration of the tests, and the process has been bedevilled with problems ever since the decision was made to move the tests from within the primary schools to large impersonal and unfamiliar centres often run by invigilators with no particular commitment to running an efficient and friendly event. The problems were compounded by loading all three tests into a single morning. You will find my report on last year's events and outcomes here.
This highlights that Medway Council rapidly conceded their fault, a welcome break from the blanket denials of previous years (although we appear to have returned to this model), but of course it didn't put it right. The Council also details the steps they took to make amends and avoid problems in future years. These included: issuing new clearer advice to invigilators and provide training to support this; carrying out unscheduled visits to exam centres to ensure all is well; consideration of providing an effective means for considering complaints from parents about testing issues - I don’t know if this has happened. The council also prepared statements to explain to Appeal Panels about the problems FOR THOSE PARENTS WHO HAD COMPLAINED, although there is no evidence to show whether or not these affected decisions. What was not feasible, and may not be this year, is that Review Panels can consider issues surrounding the tests. This is not allowed under the rules, but given the circumstances the Council could change their rules.
What can be done?
If you believe your child has been disadvantaged you should complain to Medway Council. Why not write to your Medway councillor, as many parents have suggested, for they have final responsibility for this shambles. Already many parents have contacted the Medway Messenger and Radio Kent to make their unhappiness public. This will put pressure on Medway Council, but to what purpose I am not sure. At the least to quote Medway Council's catch all response to complaints: "lessons will be learned". Last year the Ombudsman got involved, but for 2012 entry it is much more problematic. This is because all five Medway Grammar schools are now academies and the Ombudsman has no role in considering complaints about academies. However, he can consider complaints about councils and although this becomes a complex issue, I recommend you try it. You do not need to wait until you have completed the Medway Internal Complaint procedure, as: there were also serious problems surrounding the Medway Test in 2010; there appear to be issues for which the Medway Internal Complaint Department is not the appropriate forum; and there are issues that the Statutory Appeal Panel may not be able to easily address. As last year, I do not believe you will need further advice to frame any complaint you may make as, if the Ombudsman decides there is a case to be answered she will address all relevant issues raised; but you should write from your own experiences of the perceived failures. This does not of course debar you from continuing with any complaint to Medway Council.
Medway Council could arrange retests as the Ombudsman recommended for a similar situation inKent which occurred in 2009. However KCC is still resisting acceptance of this recommendation. Indeed in Medway because of the convoluted way the tests are scored, I cannot see how this could be done. Then there is the possibility of going to law - out of my area of knowledge. I am sorry I cannot at present be more positive, but will be monitoring the situation and will update the situation as it develops - as it surely will. Personally I think this fiasco is one too many for the Medway tests, and is completely unacceptable. I just feel so sorry for the children who have worked so hard and are entitled to a fair assessment - they won't forget the debacle in a hurry and certainly some will see their life chances changed as a result.
It is important to realise that the Medway Tests are competitive; with the top 23% of the student age group being allowed to pass. These children were therefore all significantly penalised in the competition, in contrast with others who had a fair experience.
However, to quote our representative again, Medway Council will not be making allowances for difficulties and it is not expected that the issue will be relevant for appeals. Of course she repeated the Medway Council mantra, as I forecast earlier: "lessons have been learned!". It is comforting to learn that next year they will think more clearly about the proportion of toilets to children.
Radio Kent interview
I believe I have given an accurate recollection of the key points made by the Medway representative on Radio Kent, having replayed the interview, but I stand to be corrected. In any case you can also listen to the views of myself and the representative quoted here, by going to "Listen Again" at the Radio Kent Dominic King Show at 16.00. My comments come immediately at the start. The Medway Council representative comes after a repeat of my comments at 1.02 hours. This will be on the BBC website for the next seven days.
What is shocking is the appalling level of planning that has gone into this event so important in the lives of Medway children: Rainham School for Girls is a new centre – wait until the problems develop, then they can be put right for next year; no need to worry about toilet provision (so important for ten year olds over a five/six hour session); we’ll put it in the schedule for next year; no need to brief parents when things have gone wrong; no need to check that the papers have been printed properly; no need to train invigilators that children’s concerns need to be listened to; no need to follow the agreement with the Ombudsman drawn up the previous year. Above all, deny the most serious faults in spite of overwhelming evidence. However, what is even more shocking (or perhaps not so surprising) is the total failure of Medway Council to realise or acknowledge what an effect this has on the children for whom they are responsible, and the loss of trust or confidence they have generated in so many Medway families. . The Medway Council slogan is "Serving You" - you may wish to suggest how this should be modified, for I see no sense of service whatever here. I will be asking at the appropriate time the level of complaints to Medway Council both on the official forms or by email or letter, about this sorry episode. It may be that the Council will wish to share this to indicate how great or small is the level of concern from parents. To date,, I am not aware of any individual responses to questions or concerns, just the brief (and erroneous) statement from the council, and the Radio Kent statement that appears sadly misinformed.
In the meantime, if you have any corrections, additions or observations about the article, I would be pleased to hear from you. Unless you indicate otherwise, anything I learn from parents will remain confidential as to the source. Some have already welcomed my individual responses on this issue.