The main public exam season is upon us – rows of intent candidates scribbling frantically, bored invigilators hoping someone will ask for extra paper to break the tedium, frenzied last-minute cramming, long-drawn-out, ill-advised post-mortems…
As exams officer, it’s easy for me to focus almost exclusively on the logistical side (and the exam boards certainly like to keep us busy on that front with multiple clashes to be administered). But of course I am also the teacher of quite a number of candidates! At this stage I’d tend to expect quite a few of them to be arranging to see me with questions to ask – it’s usually a sign that they are revising thoroughly and taking past exam practice seriously when they have found some small points they are not quite clear on. Strangely, however, it’s my Year 10s, who only have internal exams to worry about, who are arranging to see me almost every spare minute I’ve got. I do hope that my exam groups aren’t around because I’ve somehow managed to explain it all perfectly in the year and it’s all stayed in their memories, but am rather nervous that they could be sitting there doing the papers with markschemes open beside them, kidding themselves they would have got it right, really….. Oh well, it’s out of my hands, now – I can’t go round their houses to check what they are doing!
With my exams officer hat on again, one thing that’s really changed a lot in recent years is the number of candidates written up on our “special list”. That includes those with extra time (due to specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia, or medical problems), those allowed rest-breaks (mental or physical health issues, generally), those with other issues to watch out for such as a propensity for panic attacks, a tendency to faint or any other problem likely to manifest itself in an exam. Inevitably, we always find one or two manage to catch one of those vomiting bugs at some point in the exam season, leading to one unfortunate invigilator being on “vomit duty”!
There will also usually be a fair number of candidates for whom we request special consideration – this is basically an addition of 1-5% (depending on the severity of the problem). This system is obviously better than nothing, but at the top end, really isn’t adequate to cover for the disruptive effect of really nasty circumstances -imagine doing an exam when the police were round your house most of last night to take your dad into custody for violence against the family, for example. Or think of trying to keep your mind on the paper when your mum is having an operation in which survival is touch and go. At the bottom end of the scale – well, it varies a lot whether kids and their parents think of applying for it. It is undoubtedly not nice doing an exam when you have a cold. But many will think that is just one of those things, you have to live with it; others will be off to their doctor, looking for a write-up of an “acute viral infection” to wring every last mark they can out of the exam board. The latter variety often seem rather amazed that this does not automatically deliver them an A*; despite it being explained to them, there remains a presumption among some that they will automatically get bumped up to the next grade.
My exams role certainly gives me a panorama of the assorted personal and health problems experienced by our pupils – I guess the only other people who get the same overview are those in pastoral roles. I do find it very alarming how many mental health problems, in particular, seem to be manifesting themselves amongst young people. I don’t buy the idea that their lives are fundamentally more stressful than those of kids of earlier times – there have always been social, family and academic pressures on teenagers. If I compare their lives to that of my mother and uncle at a similar age – they were wartime children, so evacuated away from their family, staying with some pretty unpleasant people and shunned as “dirty evacuees” by many of the locals, before being returned home to a London still being bombed and obliged to complete their homework by candlelight in an Anderson shelter – it is pretty unambiguous that today’s kids have not, in absolute terms, got so much to worry about. But as my mum says, in her day they couldn’t afford to be stressed! How “stressed” we get doesn’t seem that related to how genuinely bad our problems are – indeed sometimes those who’ve experienced more major issues have a better sense of proportion about the possibility of slipping the odd grade in their exams.