The Typographic Hub

Examination paper printing

1st August 2012

The summer examination period is a stressful time not just for the students who sit the papers but also for those who print them. Producing exam material is not every printer’s dream job: the work demands 100% accuracy, total flexibility and absolute traceability; work is seasonal, lead times are short and security is high; make a mistake and Parliament asks questions, miss a deadline and the education system is compromised.

Little wonder few rush to the challenge. But for those printers able to comply with the exacting standards of the examination boards there is much work to be had.

There are three unitary awarding bodies in the UK offering both academic and vocational qualifications. These bodies distribute around 24 million examination papers and 4.5 million certificates to UK schools each year, plus an inestimable amount of supporting documentation. Additional awarding bodies provide material for students overseas, and others deliver papers in English to speakers of other languages. Add to this the examination requirements of UK universities and professional institutes and the total number of papers produced annually runs into hundreds of millions.

The size of the operation makes the production of examination material a complex process. However, the fundamental requirement of all awarding bodies, according to the University of Cambridge Local Examination Syndicate (UCLES), remains ‘to get the right number of papers to the right desks at the right time’. Sounds simple, but it is no mean feat given the volume of work, truncated production schedules and expedited delivery times: printing is concentrated between March and May, papers are produced six weeks prior to the examination and delivered two weeks in advance. There is little room for error, so production schedules have to be carefully planned and work constantly audited.

Security adds to the complexity of production. With the futures of so many students dependent on exam results, tensions run high forcing some individuals to desperate measures: attempted computer hacking, commandeering of delivery vans, and appropriation of question papers are some of the hazards faced by printers. Security is top priority and production is carried out in tightly regulated, strictly protected premises accessed by computerised controls and monitoring systems. All factories have 24-hour CCTV surveillance and night security, plus complex intruder alarm systems. Computer networks are installed with robust firewalls to deter even the most tenacious of hackers, and production is constantly monitored. The issuing and reconciliation of paper and plates are closely checked, and waste is shredded in-house directly from the shop floor. Exam papers are shipped in tamper-evident packaging and dispatched by an approved security carrier.

Staff working on the production of examination papers form a tight knit community with a strong culture of security, they are subjected to the same levels of auditing as the product itself. All employees are vetted and are required to sign an examination declaration form and visitors to the factories are also required to sign clearance forms and cameras are prohibited.

But such tight working methods and high levels of security deter most printers from entering the field of examination production: Smith & Ouzman Ltd, Pindar, and Cambridge University Press are three exceptions.

Smith & Ouzman Ltd, Eastbourne, Sussex, have printed examination papers for over 40 years. They entered the market, as MD Chris Smith explained, ‘because we were already into security printing and were early users of computers; the company recognised the potential application of computers to examination production and actively sought the work’. Smith & Ouzman prints millions of papers annually not just for the UK, but also Africa, Latin America and India and examination material accounts for about10% of its business.

Pindar, Scarborough, has been printing exam papers for 20 years and came into the market through its already established education business. Today Pindar has 40 staff producing long and short run papers for both home and overseas examination boards. It also oversees the production of modified exam papers for students with hearing and sight impairments, producing Braille papers that also include instructions and transcripts for examiners and three-dimensional images for blind students.

As printer to the University, CUP has extensive experience in producing educational material and the associated examination papers. Today, the University Services arm of CUP has a staff of 75 who are involved in the manufacture of over a quarter of all of the examination papers sat in the UK as well as large volumes for international markets. Following a rigorous benchmarking exercise, CUP was awarded the contract for printing all UCLES examination papers and allied material.

UK printers are world-leaders in the field of examination production. All domestic awarding bodies have their documentation printed at home, and many overseas examination bodies also employ UK printers. They choose UK firms because of their unparalleled experience of examination printing and comprehension of the problems associated with the product; the availability of the correct sort of plant; and unsurpassed levels of security. For many countries, where security is a big issue, printing exam papers outside their own boarders is itself a protection measure.

Examination papers, whether for UK or overseas consumption, are produced in thousands of variations, in quantities from 1 to over 200,000, and carry variable information: they are ideal fodder for digital printing and IBM is the chosen partner for those examination printers who have made the transition from litho to digital. Pindar has installed IBM digital equipment at its Scarborough factory for use in the manufacture of the short-run (10-1000 copies) and long-run exam papers that are produced for awarding bodies around the world. Pindar has the capability to produce papers that contain added value information such as barcodes, modified texts, or one-offs.

Following consultation with UCLES, CUP has established a secure, state of the art, custom-built, digital printing operation with IBM, which includes on-line tracking and e-procurement. CUP installed 3 IBM lines in October 2000 and now claims the UK’s leading secure digital printing facility. IBM was chosen according to Debbie Gray, Business Director, University Services, ‘because of the ability of the HD 4000 line to incorporate variable data onto the end products’. In September 2003, CUP signed a three-year contract with IBM and replaced the HD 4000 line with the high-speed InfoPrint 4100 HD3/4s capable of printing 40 million examination papers a year, increasing CUP capacity by 60% and eliminating out-sourcing. The machines produce eight to twenty page examination papers in single sections, which are then folded and stitched inline to produce the finished article. CUP’s management information system is connected to typesetting systems and print lines by highly advanced workflow systems: when a production order is released the PDF is captured from the typesetting system and transferred to the printing line, which is finished in one operation. During peak production times, the CUP presses can touch 1.5 million impressions a day and consume up to 4 tons of paper and this can increase to 6 during peak production. The partnership between CUP and IBM has been important, as Steven Godden, Business Director, Univsersity Services commented, ‘it has enabled CUP to maximise the potential of data management, electronic workflows and integrated digital printing.’

Although there is much advanced technology used in the production of examination papers, there are still some areas that adhere to traditional methods. Because examination questions are written eighteen months in advance and are originated by countless sources, the awarding bodies still tend to supply copy that requires typesetting. University Services typeset papers using QuarkXPress to a prescribed typographic layout in Helvetica and Univers or Times for mathematics papers. Papers are subjected to up to nineteen stages of checking to ensure a quality product and are usually proofed on paper. When an exam paper is signed-off a PDF is made and the proofing devices are calibrated to the press. All papers are A4 format, 4, 12, 16, 20 or more pages some contain inserts; most are designed for mono digital printing whilst others, such a geography papers, have colour requirements.

Many examination documents require specialised features to protect them against increasingly sophisticated counterfeiting and fraudulent activities. In particular, certificates are prime targets for forgery and to ensure against their imitation, sophisticated paper and ink technology enhances the documents with both visible and covert security devices.  Smith & Ouzman include complex micro-printing techniques, anti-copy features, watermarks and various types of reactive inks to authenticate and identify its certificates; and CUP produce documents using specially developed UV inks printed on unique featured paper which is extensively tested to ensure compatibility with all types of laser printers.

But what is the future for examination printing?

Whilst the current market is very paper-based, the prospects are for more of the cycle to be digitized. In the long term, David Somerfield, IBM, envisages ‘increased opportunities, greater sophistication and more personalisation of examination papers’. But in the foreseeable future Chris Branham, Pindar, predicts: ‘a shift to a fully on-line market; the first stage will see answer papers scanned and marked on-line: this will be an intermediary step to a fully digitised examination system.’ UCLES have already been trialling digital scanning of answer papers, using equipment capable of scanning 250 pages a minute, every page has a unique barcode to ensure no pages are lost. The scanned pages can then be sent to moderators and examiners for marking. ‘Fundamental to future success’, according to Susan Haywood, Assistant Director of General Assessment at UCLES, ‘is making sure technological developments match the requirements of the market.’ And what the market will require in the future is a seamless production cycle; this will see closer integration between print suppliers and examination boards as printers increase their investment in new technologies to deliver an increasing range of services.