A big school has a well-staffed Exams Office so they do the legwork with the boards: Pearson, AQA and OCR. They’re huge businesses. We spend towards £200k a year on exams alone. If you were starting from scratch, is that how you’d do it? Private companies, who also write the textbooks? Isn’t examining compulsory education part of the state’s responsibilities so shouldn’t exams come down with the rations? If they did, would it be more flexible? Could we make educational choices that weren’t affected by business interests and competition? Do we actually need GCSEs now that everyone stays on?
Sorry, anyway, exam boards have rules and we comply with all of them. The Exams team has an army of hourly-paid invigilators trained up and ready to be set loose in the exam rooms. Teachers used to do this, but workforce reforms of the early 2000s decided it wasn’t a very good use of their time. (Despite many of us fearing that unfamiliar faces would lead to mayhem in exam rooms, it didn’t. Mind, it’s an extra unfunded expense.)
Timetables are devised once we have national timings and rooms allocated. We have a lot of children who need extra time or special provision. Some need scribes to write down what they know, some need readers and writers. Some need amanuenses to help them or nudge them to complete. The basic extra-time children are in the main exam hall with the others: the special provisions are spread out around the school. We’re very full with a high room-use ratio so every room used for an exam displaces a class. Is Spanish in English? is an entirely sensible question in May.
Every exam room needs equipping. The desks so far apart, wall displays covered or removed, exam warning notices put up, corridors outside festooned with QUIET PLEASE, shushers activated.
Immediately before the exam candidates gather in the dining room for counting, sorting, and calming. The subject leader reminds them of the dastardly tricks examiners play, and which questions they should answer. Odd but important - we don’t want a child to take a sudden notion to answer on Buddhism instead of Christianity, or Richard the Third instead of Romeo and Juliet. This morning Madam French said remember the van and while I was in a retro Citroen bucketing around the Peripherique in my head, the youth were nodding sagely and thinking verb, adjective, noun agreements.
We walk them up the stairs in silence and they dispose of phones, bags, watches, waterbottle labels, opaque pencil cases. There’s a photo on each, and berth-finding takes a while. We allow time for the checking of pens, calculators or not, extraneous items on the floor, right papers in the right places. Head of Year is despatched to find latecomers (30 minutes or no exam). Finally, final instructions: don’t sniff, don’t gaze about, don’t ask to go to the toilet, Good Luck and the big number for the finish goes on the board.
Even exam time passes, the standard-time finishers tiptoe out and all flop about a bit on the yard before going to class, a revision session or home. Phew.
Teachers aren’t allowed in exam rooms anymore, so often the first they hear of what was on the paper is when children debrief each other. This can cause palpitations. Is it worse to hear that the paper was easy or hard? Is it helpful to spot a child banging his forehead with a cry of energy, not glucose, aargh?
Last week’s Guardian had a piece about GCSEs and the effect of the exams on the young. It included all sorts of worrying things about stress and the physical effects of exam terror. It cited schools where character education is all about resilience so that children cope with harder, linear exams, and I don’t like the sound of that at all. It talked about the pressures schools pile on and how ticking countdown clocks turn stout young souls to jelly.
I can be smug and say that we try not to be too, well, extra about it. We don’t have pictures up of children who do the best and we don’t spread terror stories about what happens if you don’t get a 4. Life doesn’t actually end at 16 and some of that stuff is just disrespectful to people who aren’t doctors or high court judges, which is most of us.
It’s a really hard circle to square. Post-16 life requires results so GCSEs are a gateway, for good or ill. Has the pressure got worse? Undoubtedly. Does it cause mental illness? Yes. Can we do anything about it? I’m not sure, if we insist, as a nation, on judging children by educational achievement. For every school panicking about its results there are parents who also have their hearts set on particular grades. For every stressed child there’s an indolent one who needs to be coaxed and hassled to work.
When does raising aspirations turn into unreasonable pressure? When does a reminder of how long there is to go turn from a countdown to a time bomb? How do you deliver different messages in classes of 30 and assemblies of 300? How do we balance the cost of student support services against the price of maths teachers? One hour 45 to answer, use both sides of the paper, show your working.
Who’d put children through this?