Scottish exam invigilators threaten to resign over low pay

Scottish exam invigilators are threatening to resign after the national exam board refused to increase their fees in line with the “national living wage”.

Invigilators have accused the Scottish Qualifications Authority of knowingly underpaying them by understating their actual working hours, despite a series of complaints raised since last year about low pay.

Their warnings came as SQA executives conceded to MSPs on Holyrood’s education committee that, in some exam sessions, invigilators earned an effective hourly rate of under £7 following a Guardian investigation into the pay complaints.

SQA executives admitted they had to rely on informal checks at each school to ensure the board’s 6,500 invigilators were properly paid and that they had no way of monitoring their hours.

The executives were only now introducing a mechanism for properly measuring the exact working hours for each invigilator after an investigation was launched by the Scottish living wage watchdog, the Poverty Alliance.

One chief invigilator said their resentment had grown this week after the SQA failed to increase their fees for next year’s exam season, keeping them at a pay rate which had remained unchanged since 2010. Many more were close to quitting.

“I am giving serious consideration to not accepting next year’s appointment. If I do, many of my long-term team members will do the same, leaving the school with insufficient invigilators to conduct the exams,” he said.

His deputy said she too was likely to resign following next spring’s exams after being persuaded by her supervisor to stay on for a final year. “I am [considering resigning], very seriously. In fact at the end of the last exam diet I said I have had it… I actually came out and said I’m done, it’s not worth the hassle.”

The invigilators said they were shocked the SQA had ignored the increase in the national living wage next April to £7.50 an hour, confirmed on Wednesday by the chancellor, Philip Hammond, and the new Scottish living wage of £8.45, which will be mandatory for all Scottish public bodies from April 2017.

For the eighth year running, ordinary invigilators will receive £27.15 per half day session or £54.30 for a full day while deputy chief invigilators will be paid £31.65 per half day. A chief invigilator’s rate is based on a sliding scale which can reach £60 per half day.

Daniel Johnson, the Labour MSP for Edinburgh Southern, has asked HM Revenue & Customs to investigate whether the SQA is in breach of minimum wage legislation after the agency admitted it had no way of proving that all invigilators were properly paid.

In a significant admission about the impact of those pay rates, Linda Ellison, the SQA’s finance director, told MSPs on Holyrood’s education committee that for the longer exams those fees meant invigilators received an effective hourly rate of under £7 for that session.

Pressed by Johnson during the committee hearing, Ellison insisted that it was very rare for invigilators to receive a low hourly rate for covering an exam. She said that since they covered a range of exams during each exam season, with many only an hour or two long, their effective rate was frequently up to £9.05 an hour.

Janet Brown, the agency’s chief executive, told Johnson: “What you have highlighted is that we don’t have that reporting mechanism and that is what we’re putting in place. So I do agree with you that there is a reporting structure that needs to be put in place to address that.” She added: “And over the full pay period, they are all being paid the living wage.”

Ellison said that only 30 minutes was needed for administration on each exam. But three invigilators working at different schools said that was grossly underestimating the time needed to prepare for an exam, to collate and record papers, which would routinely take an extra 45 minutes.

The invigilators said there was also frequently added time given for pupils with additional needs, which could add an hour or more to each exam, with some running over by 50% for pupils being given extra time.

The chief and deputy invigilators said they started work at 8am and frequently worked without a lunch break. There was “absolutely no way” the SQA was accounting for that extra time in the fixed rates they used, said one.

Another invigilator said he was “quite surprised” the SQA had failed to increase the fee in line with the rise in the minimum and living wage. “If you’re going to be doing such an important job, you should be paid a reasonable remuneration, which should be the living wage, particularly given that government departments are being told to pay it,” he said. “Why is it one rule for us and another rule for others?”

Asked about their threatened resignations, a spokesman for the SQA said chief invigilators should work closely with their teams “to create balanced schedules” and were now providing further guidance and revised claim forms to ensure that exam sessions for each invigilator were “balanced across the examination period … We actively encourage invigilators to discuss their individual circumstances with their chief invigilators.”