Do I look like I can be bothered to lift a finger?

Saturday, ladies and gents, saw me take the final exam of my degree, on 20th Century literature. Happily, works of more than a couple of hundred pages are out of style at the moment (unless you’re Robert Jordan, writing for Americans, or JK Rowling, writing for seven-year-olds), so I had no real trouble reading the books on Saturday morning.

(O, and can I just take this opportunity to bitchslap Sam Selvon, author of ‘The Lonely Londoners’ for writing what would otherwise be a perfectly acceptable tale of the lives of West Indian immigrants to London in the 50s entirely in a crude approximation of Carribean dialect.

Firstly, I’m not made more sympathetic to the plight of people living in a vagueish culture of racism by their trotting about speaking like the Black and White Minstrels, and secondly it’s not especially West Indian. To prove this point, I read through the entire second half in a corny Dudley accent, and it didn’t really make me strain the words. That’s because saying “He get on bus” and “Every fella he look for a work jus soon as he in London” can be read as being West Indian, West Midlands or West Country. Don’t write dialect. It doesn’t actually sound like you think you write it.

Thirdly, it’s a pain in the arse to read, dammnit! Put some bloody commas in, and stop using sentences that go “I need a work Gallahad say Moses say yes you need a work and then I got up and then I brushed my teeth and then I went to school and I said morning miss hilton and she said morning class and then I went to assembly and…”




Feeble West Indian attempts to make all West Indians sound like Jar Jar Binks aside, that exam was the last of my degre. Woo. See me care.

Er. Or not.

I probably should care, of course; thirty years ago people coming to the end of their Finals would be overjoyed at finally gaining some species of truly hefty qualification.

As it is, I’ve been taking exams every summer since 1995 (KS2 SATS, 1st & 2nd year exams at AGS, KS3 SATS, mock GCSEs, real GCSEs, pointless AS-es and genuine A-levels calling themselves A2s, 1st year Aber exams, 2nd year Aber exams, and my final exam of the past eleven years, 20th Century Literature.

Quite frankly, I’m years past the stage where I cared about exams – at Primary School, SATs were really imporant, and were, I was told, going to “make the difference of what set I was in at secondary school,” a comment made almost entirely superflous by the fact I’d passed the 11-plus by then, and wasn’t going to be streamed until GCSEs.

Then, somehow, KS3 SATs became really important (which, if true, would’ve been a crying shame, since I got an inexplicable 7 for Science, and only a 5 for English. That, of course, was before I wrote science off as a bad lot; I used to be fairly interested in it).

GCSEs rolled up shortly after, in a blaze of mock exams in Year 10, and year 11, and then the real things, and they were really *really* important because, we were told, because GCSEs were things on which basis people give you a work.

[see how annoying that it?]

…On which basis people give you a work, that is… unless you do AS levels.

Which, ditto, unless you do A2s, and go to university.

Frankly, I’ve spent an entire decade doing exams on a bare minimum of an annual basis, and since 2000 every bloody January and every bloody summer, and it’s long since past the point at which I could work up and interest, or, God forbid, apprehension, at the prospect.

Sure, when I did the 11-plus I was dead nervous, and again when KS3 SATs happened, and we all filled into the school Gym in dead silence, walked over the noise-dampening tarps as quietly as possible, and sat at tiny half-size desks trying not to breathe too loud in case they called it cheating…

But come on; I was that nervous in 1999. You can’t expect me to still be on edge when I walk into the great hall, looking for an equally half-size desk that’s not too near the door for me to feel a draft, and yet close enough that I don’t look a wally when I get bored and leave half an hour early to have a hot chocolate with Paul.

Taking exams is like taking hard drugs, as far as I can tell. To begin with, you’re dead nervous, you don’t know what it’s going to be like, you get a real buzz, and you pray you’re not going to make a real mess of it, and look stupid in front of all your mates…

…and then, eleven years later… It’s the same old thing, frankly, and you’re doing it half-heartedly; not in the manner of Heroin, because you need to, but in the manner of methadone, because you’re told to. And, frankly, it isn’t fun anymore, it isn’t clever, and it’s just the same old thing as it always is, with all the novelty and the rush and the excitement gone out of it…

Education is supposed to be about drawing people out, rounding out their personalities and making them interesting and intelligent people. It shouldn’t be about teaching them that exams are routine and dull, and that you pass them by chucking in a couple of quotes and saying “On the other hand” to satisfy the WJEC Assessment Objective 2 criteria you need to meet level 4 of the markscheme.

Where would be the rush in that?

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  1. On May 22, 2006 Scatman Dan says:

    Well said.

    Wow; didn’t realise you were young enough for the “A2” thing.

  2. On May 22, 2006 Statto says:

    I agree: exams are rubbish. They’re probably the worst part of education in any subject, beautifully combining being stressful and unfair.

    I agree that they can be passed cynically by satisfying mark schemes almost across the board, with even university-level essay exams able to be deconstructed into hoop-jumping. You can probably get a first in Oxford physics without being very clever just by memorising the appropriate derivations; after all, you only need 14 of the 20 marks per question, and often enough of them hang on trotting out routine-ish mathematical tricks that it’s not too hard to obtain them.

    However, as much as I share your cynicism about exams as a learning or even an assessing tool, surely they are the only one we have? Education should certainly be about developing a full, ’rounded’, educated person, but unfortunately, without a much more extensive and financially-unviable assessment scheme, this holistic development is never going to happen without the coöperation of the individuals being educated.

    There will always be system-players who get firsts by memorising the derivations/the standard essay layout/whatever: the key, surely, is to make sure that you’re one of them, and get some of that well-rounded education stuff on the side so you’re not an empty husk of strategically-enhanced intellect.

    As for being scared of exams, I don’t think it’s enough to simply say that familiarity breeds contempt; I went through the whole of school without lifting a finger for exams or ever feeling even a tiny bit of exam stress, and yet I now lose sleep for weeks before exams and work pretty hard—ridiculously hard by comparison to my efforts at school—because the exams now are difficult, and I want to do well in them.

    Exam stress is a function not just of the familiarity of the environment, but the challenge that is laid before you in it, and how you modulate that challenge with your ambition.

    Exams are not intellectually stimulating, but it is a non sequitur to then debase the entire education system because of this.

  3. On May 22, 2006 The Pacifist says:

    Well said.

    Wow; didn’t realise you were young enough for the “A2″ thing.

    I’m young enough for the A2 thing!

  4. On May 24, 2006 JTA says:


    Yes, exams are vaguely useful. But there’s too many of the fuckers.

    Five years ago, you did GCSEs, probably with mocks in year 10, and they were the first exams you’d ever done, unless you did an 11 plus. SATS weren’t really there, and so barring end of year tests up in S5, nothing much happened.

    Then you did A-levels, after two years of study, and without anything in the LVIth, and then if you went to University you’d have three years of degree (minimum) and then finals.

    The whole system had built-in firebreaks, basically. Exams, break for two years, exams, break for three years, exams, enter real world.

    As it is, it’s practially impossible to walk from one academic building to another without running into seating plans and people legging it over to do some revision in the library, and the whole thing seems to have got a lot more stressful for a lot of people.

    Under the old system, University meant doing pretty much your own thing for three years, and then having such work as you’d already put in pay off at the end. Now it’s doing exams every six months and having such work as you’ve put in pay off at the end.

    The net result on paper is pretty much the same, at least in those cases where people who are actually clever have gone to Uni, rather than people who’d be better off learning practical skills rather than meeting some arbitary target of the Government’s, but without the freedom of the first few years in which to develop as people, rather than exam-passing automatons.

    Exams are the best means of assesment we’ve got, sure, but if we keep using the stupid things all the time, they’re going to wear out. It’s like driving a formula one car the forty yards to the nearest of three Tescos; it’s a damn good way of getting somewhere fast, but there’s no need to do it every day when you could just do one big shop every fortnight.

  5. On May 24, 2006 Statto says:

    Look out for internal contradictions!

    In your original post, you cite school end-of-year exams as part of your decade of annual examination, whereas you dismiss them in the above response as a triviality. I’m afraid I can’t pick out a pithy epithet from each by way of contrast, but the implication is there.

    Which do you think? I think that, even if we were to whittle down national exams from the current glut, schools would be irresponsible not to make sure that a year’s knowledge has been successfully imparted with some kind of tests.

    Then, having said that multitudinous exams numb candidates into apathy in the main post, you claim that the huge numbers of exams are “more stressful for a lot of people”.

    I would tend to agree with the latter—indeed, it was my disagreement with familiarity necessarily leading to candidates ceasing to care which compelled me to respond—but I still wouldn’t be so harsh on the education system because of it.

    As for numbers of exams, I think this is a tough question, but I’m tempted to agree that we have too many. The trouble being, of course, that one of the key breeding grounds for exams, modularisiation (if there is such a word) of GCSEs and A(S/2)-levels, is intended to ensure there’s less to memorise and thus take the pressure off candidates. Similarly, second year exams at uni make sure there’s less to learn for the final finals: certainly my degree would be something of a nightmare if we had to learn double the stuff for third year, or triple the stuff for a fourth year Day of Reckoning…

    On the other side of the coin, I think that exam stress is probably there regardless of how bite-size the chunks, and I’d certainly argue in favour of getting a summer off in my second year such that you can actually do something outside of physics at university, which is pretty tough at the moment because you must take a term in every three off your chosen cumulative extra-curricular activity to revise.

    I’m also not convinced that the old system was as idyllic as you make out; I can’t imagine how you’d do a degree course without even having first year exams, my statistically-watertight survey of Dad did indeed have first year ones, and the majority of arts subjects here still only have first and third year tests.

    So, in summary, I agree broadly with your comment, but not with your original post! Fewer centralised exams, especially in the dark and murky A(S/2)-level neck of the woods, would probably go down quite well.