Alison finished stacking the dishwasher and sidled over to the door. “I’m just going upstairs to get myself sorted out for next week. Won’t be long.”

Ben paused the programme that the rest of the family was watching.

Derek rolled his eyes. “See you tomorrow.”

Alison hovered in the doorway. “It’s not for much longer. Just think, soon I’ll be all yours on a Sunday evening.”

Derek raised an eyebrow. “I can hardly wait.”

The children affected not to hear this. Alison opened her mouth, but couldn’t think of anything to say which didn’t sound either martyred or mawkish. She paused for another moment and then retreated upstairs. Was it so wrong to want to clear her inbox ready for the week ahead? It wasn’t her fault she was so busy.

She settled at her desk and opened the lid of the laptop. She looked around the study while it was warming up. God, there was a lot of stuff to sort through before they moved. And she really must remember to back everything on the laptop up before she had to give it back to the university when she left. There were a  few personal things on there. No point in doing it till the last minute. As long as she remembered.

The laptop drew her attention back. Eleven email messages. God, since when did so many other people work at the weekend?  She scanned the list.  Only one caught her eye. It would have been hard for it not to. It was marked ‘urgent‘ and the subject line read ‘external examiner!!!! HELP!!!!’

It was from Phil. Alison sighed.

Phil and Sal had been supposed to be sharing the course leader duties since Easter, to provide a transition period. In theory, she was only providing them with occasional support and advice, because in theory the Quality department documentation was so robust that everything was self-explanatory. ‘Succession planning’, Geoff called it.

In practice, the documentation may have been self-explanatory, but it told course leaders nothing about when tasks need to be completed, nor who might be expected to do what. It was indeed very helpful, once you knew what what needed to be done, when, and by whom. So far Alison had just found it quicker to do everything herself. However, she’d insisted that they manage the exam board by themselves. That was something where the timetable was laid down from on high and which was adequately served by the central administrative team. It was on the following Wednesday and she was thoroughly looking forward to ceremonially sending her apologies.

The subject line of Phil’s email therefore filled her with gloom. She opened one or two less important-looking emails but her attention was really on the multiple exclamation marks and what might have been happening with the external examiner over the weekend. Could she be sick? Possible, but hardly a disaster – they could manage without her for once, as long as she sent in a sick note. Perhaps she had uncovered some terrible marking discrepancy. Unlikely – Alison had the marking criteria tied down to the last half a percent. Leaving aside Jan’s strange attempt to include behaviour in the criteria earlier in the year, that was all pretty much under control.

Reluctantly, she clicked on the row of exclamation marks.



Terrible cock-up.

Nobody told me I had to sort out a sample of work for the external.

Got an email from her tonight asking about it.

What should I do?

Alison swore loudly and kicked uselessly at the wall behind her desk. Fucking idiots. One thing they’d been asked to do. One.

She clicked on ‘Reply All’ and started typing furiously.


Having sat through innumerable interminable exam boards, it cannot possibly have escaped your attention that the external examiner makes a comment at the end about the SELECTION OF STUDENT WORK which he or she has had the pleasure of reviewing. HOW DO YOU THINK THE EXTERNAL EXAMINER GETS THIS WORK? THE PROGRAMME LEADER CHOOSES IT, FINDS IT, COPIES IT, and then asks the admin team to post it….

Her breathing was rapid and angry.Her fury overcame her. She stood up and clenched her fists, moving slightly away from the desk.

Her eye fell on a very old photo of Derek, Ben and Emma on a beach showing off an enormous sandcastle. It was and old one; they hadn’t bothered to get any photos framed or put up on the wall for years. It must have been twelve or thirteen years ago. All three of them were grinning excitedly for the photographer, proud of their entirely futile achievement. She had a feeling that Ben had kicked the whole thing to pieces about ten seconds later.

She breathed in deeply. No point in getting upset. Breathe out. It wasn’t her responsibility any more. Breathe in. Soon she’d be gone. She felt her heart rate falling.

She sat down again and closed her eyes for a moment.

Then, she deleted the text she’d just typed and started again.

Dear Phil

I’m sorry to hear that the external examiner hasn’t yet received a sample. We usually send her all of the work from one student from each of the main bands, plus failing students, if there are any.  Then, we make available all of the work we have on the day in case she wants to sample something in particular when she’s here. Most of it’s digital now so we usually send it to her in advance. Probably best now to give her a CD or a memory stick on the day. Just email her to say that you thought that was the procedure.

Hope this helps


That should do. It still wasn’t her problem.

She sighed again. Suppose she’d better go in to the system and see what kind of a sample might be needed.  She went through the complicated set of screens which led to the student record system.

She had access to everything in the department. She scanned the list. BSc Forensic Biology, BSc Chemical Biology, BSc Animal Biology…She chose ‘Show All’. That lot would take a while to load. While it was metaphorically whirring away, she started jotting down some notes for the presentation she had to give at the staff ‘awayday’ on Tuesday. It would be a good opportunity to get her thoughts on the inclusive practice project together, make it easier to hand over. If anyone would take it on.

Her eyes returned to the screen. What kind of a sample for the external would work best this year? One student from each award, with a sample of all of their work?  A random sample from each unit? She started scrolling.

After the earlier debacle with marking on Foundations of Biology, she was sure that everything would have been moderated and double-moderated, triple-marked, or whatever it would take to ensure that standards were fair and consistent. Although she could see only twenty or so names at a time, one column still caught her eye. She couldn’t see the column header without going back up to the top. She put one finger on the screen to keep the place while she did that.

It was “Biology Skills”. She sighed. It was a core second year module taken by students on all of the Biology courses. Nobody wanted to teach skills in their ‘specialist’ modules – “I can’t fit that in. It just detracts from the important knowledge they need to gain, Alison” was a typical comment from her colleagues when the course was being reviewed. As a result, they’d removed some of the subject knowledge to make room for this special module. Nobody wanted to teach it, either, so they’d had to bring in part-time staff. But anyway. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was that it looked from this list as though students were getting consistently higher marks on this one than on other modules.

Alison sighed heavily. She clicked on ‘download’ to get all of the results into a spreadsheet. It took ages. She wondered idly what broadband speed would be like on the Isle of Wight.

Eventually the data reappeared in front of her in Excel. She added cells to create an average under each column.


The average mark for ‘Biology Skills’ was 8.3% higher than the next highest column mark. That couldn’t be right.

A lot of thoughts went through Alison’s head.

Why hadn’t the pre-exam board picked this up? (She’d sent her apologies)

Did it matter? It was just a second year module, and wouldn’t have much impact on final degrees. All students took it, so everyone would have had the same opportunity to do well.

Who was moderating the work?

What if the external examiner noticed?

Who was training the part-time staff who must have marked the work?

How could this have happened, with her detailed marking criteria?

Who set the work?

If nobody else had noticed, and she was no longer the course leader, should she just keep quiet?

She felt tears prickling her eyes. Downstairs, the others were laughing at something on the TV. She sniffed pitifully and reached for a tissue. It just wasn’t fair. She wasn’t supposed to be sorting this out. What could she do?

She took reached out to the laptop and gently shut the lid, removing the offending numbers from her vision. Sod the inbox. She tiptoed away from the desk as though something there might suddenly wake and leap out at her. Leaving the room, she closed the door carefully behind her, trapping the problem, and went down to join the rest of the family.

Not. Her. Problem.

Wading Through Treacle is entirely fictional. You can follow @wadingtreacle on Twitter, or like the Wading Through Treacle page on Facebook to be informed of updates, or click on ‘follow’ at the bottom of this screen to register for updates from Wading Through Treacle. Feel free to send Wading Treacle accounts of daft things which could be fictionalised by email:


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