29 April 2016

Against the clock

It’s a term of exams; one which is more complicated than any of my teaching career, as the latest round of national exam tinkering starts to bite. The country’s Year 12 pupils (we call them A3) are engaging, depending upon their choices, in a mix of legacy and reformed A levels - and it is a cocktail that is producing headaches across the country. Our job, parents and teachers, is to keep our charges sane. And to allow them to do their best.

Exams are one of those unavoidable snapshots of life; not attractive to many of those engaged in them, apart from a few odd souls who relish the adrenalin rush of proving themselves against the clock and without access to any notes that may help them. I remember my tutor at college, the wonderful Stephanie West, asking me as I was getting a little ‘stressed’ preparing for my unseen papers in Greats (which means ‘Finals’ in almost every other part of the world): “If we found a new manuscript of a Greek author, to whom would we give it for the better translation: a nervous finalist student in an exam with no dictionary, or a focused and rested expert in a library surrounded by all the texts one could possibly need?” That helped me a lot to realise what a damn silly idea in lots of ways an unseen translation exam is. It has to be done of course, but the aim of the test is not the production of a perfect translation, but the production of the best you can do in the most unnatural of circumstances. Doing well in exams is all about recognising upon what it is that you are being tested and making your peace with that.

My husband is a big horse-racing fan. He often talks to me about the horses, the trainers and the races and I understand a (very small) percentage of what he says. This is of course the secret of a long and happy marriage. He talked to me recently about ‘breeze up sales’, in which young horses (two-year-olds) are galloped (‘breezed’) for a quarter of a mile or so, the better to inform the on-looking prospective purchasers as to their potential as racehorses. Recently, it has become modish to time this test gallop. And still more modish to pay the highest price for the fastest horse. This has resulted, of course, in young horses being specifically prepared to excel in the test gallop, with less regard for their future health and racing prospects.

I was struck by, and indeed moved by, some of the language of horsemen who see the limits of this exercise. One said: “It’s a fad. But the shrewd guys are seeing through it. They know that if you push these young horses too hard, their heads will be fried, their legs will be fried, and you can forget any idea of them becoming racehorses. Best of luck to these lads with their stopwatches … I know we’re being penalised for not doing fast breezes. But our turn will come. People will come full circle.”

We all have to do ‘breezes’ against the clock. We call them exams. But whilst we accept we have to do them, and that it is generally a good thing to do well in them, I do hope that by next year we shall indeed be seeing a full circle. We will very soon be returning to the days of a two year sixth form (i.e. no AS exams) and, by 2019, we’ll be going back to something like 1926 and the School Certificate, with GCSEs graded 1-9, rather than A* to G. With that might return also the educational memory that not everyone is supposed to get only the highest grade; not everyone is first in a particular race. Or as another racehorse trainer put it: “A lot of the real ‘road runners’ that break the clock at the sales don’t turn out to be ‘race runners’, so to speak … and some of our best horses were bought simply because we liked their make and shape and attitude.”

I have two OB daughters in their early twenties who I very much hope, having been pretty decent ‘road runners’ at Bryanston, are now much more importantly ‘race runners’. All I have ever cared about is their ability to be independent, happy, and fulfilled. I wish them lives of brave choices and paths explored. I wish them loving and loved. These ‘breeze ups’ or exams are, and always have been, just irritating snapshots on the way to these greater goals. I do very much hope that between us we can make sure all our children have the right priorities in life. Some of achieving that is in making sure we don’t buy into any nonsense.

In other words, focus long-term. Or if you prefer, it’s not the snapshot or the stopwatch that matters but how it fits into your plans for a happy, fulfilling, and contributory life.