38 newly-qualified senior journalists are celebrating this week after being told they had passed July’s National Certificate Examination for reporters.
The pass rate for last month’s NCE matched that of two years ago when 48 per cent of candidates gained their senior NCTJ qualification – acknowledged by editors as the industry’s national standard for professional journalists.
There were 80 candidates who sat the exam on Friday, 8 July at seven centres across the UK – 53 first-timers and 27 resits. There was also one candidate who sat and passed the NCE for sports reporters first time at Up To Speed in Bournemouth.
The chief examiner said the ongoing smaller entry, comparable with the November and March sittings, was expected in line with the downturn of recruitment in the industry.
Although resit passes were down by 20 percentage points when compared to March’s NCE, and 30 percentage points from July last year, the chief examiner was encouraged by the ongoing achievements of candidates sitting the exam for the first time.
Despite the pass rate for first-timers being slightly lower than it was in March, there were still more than half who gained the certificate – six percentage points more than the number who passed a year ago.
There are four sections which make up the NCE: news interview; news report; newspaper practice; and logbook.
Since November 2009, the number of passes in the news interview exam has been on the increase, reaching a peak of 80 per cent in March, and tying with the pass rate for the newspaper practice section. However, in the latest NCE the percentage of candidates who passed was down to 55 per cent, a 15 percentage point decrease on the figures from July 2010.
The news interview paper featured a heroic story about how an off-duty French fireman had come to the rescue after his sister-in-law’s wedding party, when a fire broke out in the hotel they were staying in. The fire alarm sounded at 2.40am and, after escorting his wife and son to safety, he returned to rescue the chief bridesmaid, who was unconscious, before firefighters arrived to help him.
There were 67 candidates who sat and 37 who were judged by examiners to have achieved the required standard.
Examiners said there was a lot of drama and information for candidates to take in, with the strong line being the hero firefighter. Although some candidates did a good job painting a picture of the incident and building the drama, the examiners said there were others who failed to truly engage the reader.
The topic of the news report exam was a rare sighting of a merlin – the UK’s smallest bird of prey – which was announced by a local ornithological society at a press briefing for its forthcoming Garden Birdwatch count.
42 of the 77 candidates who attempted the exam were successful, a pass rate of 55 per cent. Despite the percentage of candidates passing this component hovering around the 60 mark for the past year, July saw a drop to a similar figure recorded in the same exam two years ago.
Examiners felt the majority of candidates did not handle the story particularly well, and said the selection of news detail and story structure was the weakest they had encountered for some time.
“There is more pressure than ever on reporters to provide accurate, well-structured newsy stories to deadline,” the examiners said. “The NCE is merely testing what reporters should be capable of doing on a daily basis in the office.
“Disjointed structure, clumsy sentences, mis-use of words, factual errors and inaccurate quotes should not be present in copy produced by journalists who want to take the next step up the ladder to seniority.”
Although the section with the highest pass rate besides the logbook was once again the newspaper practice paper – as it has been for the past four exams – the results were lower than they have been in recent years. 37 of the 63 candidates who sat the paper were successful: a pass rate of 59 per cent.
The newspaper practice paper had questions on how to develop stories – including an accusation by the National Farmers’ Union that the county police force was neglecting rural crime. Examiners said there were some good answers in this section, with many candidates demonstrating an awareness of how to take advantage of the opportunities thrown up by social media.
However, the chief examiner said it was a concern that many candidates struggled in their answers on how to develop a story, suggesting it may be a result of senior colleagues having less time to spend with trainees.
The paper also included ethical and legal dilemmas about a sportsman and restaurant owner in the law section of the practice paper. As well as being essential to pass this section of the NCE, examiners reiterated how vital it is for a reporter to have good legal knowledge. “Not only does it give them confidence to do a difficult job, it gives editors confidence that their journalists will not get the paper into trouble.
“Too many got the wrong end of the stick and took the wrong approach, rendering low marks. There was not sufficient depth or detail, and in a few cases the law was so bad it would have been costly,” they added.
The logbook, which is a record of a trainee’s work during their 18-month – two-year training period, had a pass rate of 91 per cent, with five of the 55 candidates who submitted a portfolio of their work failing on one or more of the key tasks.
Examiners said there were some impressive submissions and a good overall standard of logbooks from July’s exam. However, they added that the failures were mainly down to basic errors which could have been avoided by reading the key criteria more thoroughly.
Copies of the Examiners' reports for the reporters' NCE and Sports NCE can be found here