Cymru Culture

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Steve Lamb - Exams; then and now

(March 01, 2017)

Exams; then and now

On the six o’clock news last night I heard a teacher from the Netherlands describe the examination system of that country. In comparison to their light touch attitude to formal assessment children in our schools appear to be tested continuously. The news item took me back to the first term of my career. At the beginning of November one of my classes was being taken out of school on a visit to the Folk Museum as it was then known in St Fagans. It meant I could look forward to the luxury of a free lesson. That dream soon faded: the deputy head stopped me on my way into morning assembly to tell me that I would be invigilating the first half hour of the Oxford University Entrance exam and to go straight to the sixth form quiet room between the science labs and the RE room. There were two boys taking the examination and as soon as I arrived the head of maths opened a sealed envelope, handed test papers to the boys, wished them luck, told them to begin and left.

It had been little more than four months since I had been in the position of those boys. I’d completed the last of my finals papers on the 14th June and now in November I was overseeing their work. I was only a few months away from the schoolboy/undergraduate fantasy of cheating the system in some brain boggling way and now I was responsible for the proper conduct of this exam. What a strange feeling! It wasn’t the first or last time that I felt a fraud as a teacher. I’d been in awe of the authority figures in their academic gowns marching from the staffroom in my Birmingham grammar school. I had no idea how the school pupils saw me.

The boys were working speedily and I took a moment to look through the entrance paper. It had been three years since I had sat Advanced level pure and applied mathematics but how galling it was to realise that even with a healthy dose of self-delusion I was not able to convince myself that I could completely answer even a single question. All those years of study and my brain had already discarded the stuff I had struggled to master.

I had always enjoyed exams in a strange sort of way. Naturally lazy, it was something of a relief in an exam to know that you could no longer procrastinate. There was nowhere to go so you might as well make the most of what you knew or what you could make up. Time seemed to race by as I sought to arrange my knowledge and understanding to best effect. How different that was to exam supervision. Every second crawled by and no strategy could improve on the tedium.

I looked at the two candidates sitting facing me two rows from each other. I didn’t know them. I spent my time in school teaching much younger pupils. That gave my imagination licence to wander. They looked so different – contrasting figures in many ways. One seemed conventionally studious with heavy black frames to his reading glasses and a mop of carelessly combed straight black hair which he had to keep pushing back from his forehead. His companion was wearing the same school uniform but there similarities ended. There was stylishness about this teenager and the suggestion of a rebellious spirit indicated by the bootlace narrow tie and the fashionable hair style. He sat back in his chair leaning away from the desk in a detached attitude at odds with the hunched stance of his friend. Even so they both appeared to be making good progress through the set questions in their different ways.

As I was tempted into meditating on the purposelessness of it all, the door opened and the deputy head came in to take over. In the hurly burly of the day I’m sure I never thought again about the shelf life of my own learning, being too busy inculcating learning in others.

Looking back now I remember that the eleven plus examination, to determine whether a boy or girl went from primary school to a grammar school or a secondary modern, was often a pupil’s first real experience of formal testing under examination conditions. After that, in the school where I taught, subject exams were set and marked at Christmas and close to the end of the summer term. For most pupils these took place in their form rooms and were invigilated by their form teachers. The school timetable was suspended and they sat two exams a day, normally at least an hour in length, preceded by revision time. The whole business was over in a week. Each teacher set his or her own papers and marked the completed scripts without moderation. It was a simpler world but not necessarily a better one.

At sixteen, grammar school pupils would sit Ordinary levels and at eighteen Advanced levels. Most schools in the south Wales valleys used the exam papers prepared and published by the ‘Welsh Board’. Pupils across the country sat the same paper at the same time. Exams were held in school halls, and question papers arrived like the Oxford Entrance, in sealed envelopes. These papers were generally quite concise and to the point. A maths question testing pupils’ knowledge and understanding of Pythagoras’ theorem would, for example, read something like: ‘State Pythagoras’ theorem; prove Pythagoras’ theorem; use Pythagoras’ theorem to solve the following problems...’ You would write your answers up in special booklets common to all subjects. There would have been no opportunity to bank any marks from classwork or coursework so the test was very much on the day with one chance to shine… or not! These exams were held in the first fortnight of June straight after the Whitsun or half term holiday.

These days the summer examinations stretch over a six week period from early May to late June. There are many more papers, some of them like novellas, as examination candidates are required to write answers in appropriate sections of the question paper. Questions are not generally as direct: the Pythagoras question might now read as a short story about a married couple setting up home and wondering whether a second hand wardrobe will fit into a small bedroom. The word Pythagoras is more than likely not mentioned and pupils will need to be able to recognise that this question is testing a particular aspect of geometry. An English Language paper will no longer ask for a précis of a particular topic from a longer set passage, but pupils will have to decode a more general question and recognise that understanding and summary skills are being tested and use the appropriate strategies. Examination candidates will have often amassed marks from previous tests or practical/course work and have a clear idea of how they must perform to reach their predicted grades. In the recent past, exams became much less like one off chances to succeed, with the introduction of extended opportunities to resit if you needed a higher grade.

This brief description of two very different systems should be enough to warn people away from casual judgements about the difficulty or otherwise of today’s exams compared to yesteryear. Things become even more complicated when you look at the way examination candidates’ work was and is marked. When I marked my first English papers I was told by my head of department, and I doubt this was very different from advice others received, to trust my instincts but beware of overmarking – eight out of ten should be a ceiling. He went on to tell me to review the rank order after each set of papers was marked putting the best first and so on. If the rank order was not convincing then check my marking. When I marked my last papers, I had to use a criteria reference list; a little like a driving test sheet. If a pupil had shown aptitude in skills a, b and c but not d, e or f then that pupil would be awarded a certain score on that question: if all criteria were met then I had to award full marks.

So much is different, and the differences make comparisons odious, but one thing is clear. School lives are now dominated by assessment in a way that was never true in the past. In a contradictory fashion, just as the school curriculum has grown and continues to grow so the usable time available for learning is dramatically shrinking, squeezed by assessment demands. Incidentally, both the boys taking the Oxford Entrance examination were successful and took up places in colleges in that prestigious university. This brought great pleasure to the staff and pupils of the school because when the good news arrived the Chairman of Governors declared a day’s extra holiday in celebration. Now that is the kind of memory the brain does not discard.

Steve Lamb, March 2017

Steve Lamb's new novel, Search, is serlialised in Cymru Culture.
Chapters 1 and two of Search are linked here.

If you enjoyed this, you'll also enjoy Steve's previous stories:

     The rugby tour, December 2016
The sponsored walk
, September 2016
A typical day
, June 2016
The school eisteddfod, March 2016
The school play, December 2015

Corridor duty, September 2015
End of an era, June 2015
Teacher training, March 2015
"... the best thing that happened to me in school", December 2014
The punishment, September 2014
The interview, June 2014

Steve Lamb is a retired teacher who lives in south Wales. In a career spanning more than forty years he worked as a teacher, local authority school improvement officer and inspector of education services for children and young people.


Steve Lamb - 2014 Steve Lamb - 1972
Steve Lamb ... now  ... and then (1972)


cylchgrawn Cymru Culture magazine
Published by/Cyhoeddwyd gan:
Caregos Cyf., 2017

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