From education to employment

As Exams Rumble On, FE News Reporter Daniel Wallis<

This week the South West Regional Skills Partnership (RSP) reassured young people sitting their GCSEs that they could be confident about the choices and options their future holds, no matter what career or educational choice they choose. The importance of not becoming too stressed over exams was also highlighted, as the wealth of choices available after GCSEs is wide enough to comfort those exam-day blues.

May as well reassure the matador that there are many fine hospitals in the area; exams will remain the necessary evil of every pupil’s life. But in a way, exams are good, although probably not for the reasons that they are used. Exams, in practice, are the most effective way of freaking out children since they stopped believing in monsters under the bed. Pupils get to learn the true meaning of grown-up words like “stress” and “pressure”. Childish hopes and dreams are mercilessly blown away by the harsh reality of grades, results, partial credit, extra points.


Some brave souls will rise to the challenge, and cast off their remaining wisps of childhood and become cold-hearted logical adults; some will see their juvenile empires of intellect crumble before them as they fail to get the “predicted” grade; others still will discover a wealth of underhanded and dubious methods of feigning knowledge, copying results and “scraping through”. It is the ultimate under-20 rite of passage, dreaded in the same way a hypothetical chubby, coddled kid in Korea awaits mandatory military service.

The exam actually begins many months before the day itself. You start the course with the vague knowledge that there will be exams somewhere near the end, but with no great idea of the importance, or the length, or the stress. You are armed only with the knowledge of the “tests” you had before the age of 16, usually sat next to your best mate, and gleefully reproducing their work down to the letter. The test is handed in personally, and is graded with a number and / or quantity of smiley faces, along with a patronizing and inflammatory kind of mantra, “could do better” or “needs practice”. In this way, the true reality of Exams is never really understood at the beginning, and life after the course has commenced is merely a series of subtractions from that myth.

For many, this will be the first time your parents start to take an actual interest in what you are doing in school; now that exams have arrived, they have suddenly taken acute concern in what you are doing. Teachers too, betray a certain urgency in their classes, which are now more pressurized and focused than before; a slight note of hysteria creeps into their voices as the ghost of Results Past taunts them with the pressure to “do better than last year’s lot”. Meanwhile, still comforted by the days when tests were so easy you could look forward to them as a means of earning smarties, you just laugh off the grown-ups and continue at your own luxurious pace.

Then, Dawn

As realization starts to dawn, the casual laughs become more nervous and unsure. For the first time in your life, you are invited to worry, indeed you are encouraged to do so as the future is a terrible place filled with misery that you can only avoid if you pass Exams. The halcyon days of ten-minute ten-question tests are fast fading; now they”re talking in hours, not minutes. With a giddy sense of disbelief you receive the practice paper. The exam is two hours long, possibly more. There are only three questions. Some mistake, surely, but the next page actually taunts you with the knowledge that “This is a Blank Page”.

The questions are different too. No longer worded in the same moronic fashion as the “Old Tests”, these are almost military in their execution. They are called “problems” now, not questions; “problems” are what grown-ups have. The “Question Sheet” is now called a “paper”, but what kind of paper turns up without cartoons and a crossword? Gone is the warmth, the leniency, the joyfulness is over. Gone are the characters who enact the situations; Bob and Pete and Chip the Dog have been collectively lobotomized into “a Man” walks to “Point B” in 8.6 minutes”. Cold Orwellian commands shriek off the paper to “Turn the Page Now”, “Choose ONE of the Following” and the particularly spiteful “DO NOT Write in This Space” (like the legendary “Do Not Walk On The Grass” I was never tempted to do so until ordered not to).

Meanwhile, everyone else in the class seems to have an innate knowledge of all this, and strut around talking about “courses” and “A-Levels” and “Uni” as if they”re on TV. People start to forgo the lunchtime football for quiet study. You start to panic; whatever this is, it’s real. As the big day gets closer, you get unpleasant reminders of what is to come; they show you the “Exam Hall” (which used to be the good old gym), the desks, how to walk in and when to walk out, like showing a condemned man the rope. By this time lessons revolve around Exams in their entirety.

Like a prizefighter before the World Title you are groomed into a cold calculating machine, no room for error or weakness. Teacher explains to you the moves your opponent will make. “Always read the question first, they”ll try to catch you with the wording. Remember, if it says “use the source” you”d better use the source. And keep it clean, no conversation.” The hitherto-unseen Head appears as a kind of Don King character, taking a sudden interest in the ones that will “do well” with the same exploitative glance a prospector holds for a stream he has jut seen the glint of gold in.

The Timetable Says “Touch Your Nose”¦?”

The exam timetable arrives, and dictates how you will spend each minute of the following month. Pupils become time management experts, plotting their moves down to the minute to ensure maximum revision. Some paste the timetable to their bedroom walls, or inside their files, to psych themselves up in the same way a detective displays pictures of the crime scene to inspire him. The first signs of pressure creep over the weaker subjects, and the usual five stages occur. The disbelief that Exams are really “that bad” has been deteriorating for months now, and now disillusioned anger has replaced it. They never told us that it would be like this. Why should our lives be dictated by the performance of a single sitting? Why can”t we have our textbooks in with us, we paid for them. It’s a conspiracy.

Once anger has burnt itself out, it is quickly replaced by fear. Fantasies of failure plague your sleep, you see yourself staring at the paper as if it is written in Japanese, you see some honest misunderstanding lead to your paper being torn up before your very eyes. Your mind taunts you with the grim prospects of life After the Exam, full of demeaning dead-end jobs and brown paper bags concealing bottles. No comfort from your equally witless friends; together, you gather and worry collectively, all the time scaring each other with some scrap of misheard information: “I heard they check your hands to see if you”ve written anything, if you sneeze, they throw you out for communication. And you can never go to the toilet, even if you really have to.”

Then comes bargaining. Good teacher, sweet, kind teacher, you”ll help me out of this, won”t you? Put in a good word for your old student, won”t you? You know I”m well off? I can make it worth your while, you know”¦ No pupil can admit to not ever even considering bribery, if only to speculate “how much would they take? Would a fiver do it?” Similarly, being nice now may somehow provide a kind of leniency in the future. The charade is dropped once you discover that the papers aren”t even marked here, but shipped off to some secret location, possibly guarded with dogs, to be processed and marked by the stingiest of grudge-holding invigilators: won”t be needing the full pen for this one.

Finally, acceptance. We”ve all got to do it, that’s just the way it is. No matter. Just do the best you can. A strange sense of calm descends on the class before they enter the exam hall, like the inside of a paratrooper plane before they jump out; a distantly wailing harmonica would not be amiss. Handshakes are performed, good luck offered. T minus ten seconds, now. Silence is called for. A zen-like impassion robs your face of all emotion and you distance yourself from reality. You take your place. The Exam has started.

To Be Continued”¦

Daniel Wallis

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