Tuesday, 13 May 2008
What schools do
A student friend was recalling her school days - not very long ago. "Don't write what you think," she was advised. "You don't pass A-levels that way. Write what you're told."
And that's how it works. She took the advice, kept quiet about her own ideas and wrote the unoriginal essays that would gain the highest marks.
Luckily the story has a happy ending. My friend is now studying Philosophy and Theology at university, filled with excitement at her studies and writing what she thinks. It sounds as though she's on track for a First. Meanwhile compliant students, who never considered thinking for themselves, are floundering and wondering where it all went wrong.
My school exams were something of a farce. For O-levels I relied a mixture of rote-learning, guesswork and, for the subject that interested me, extra reading and thought on the day. English Literature was almost a disaster. I launched into an essay on Shakespeare's King John which required a comparison of Cardinal Pandulph and Robert Faulconbridge. I'd nearly finished when the awful realisation struck me: I was writing about the wrong Faulconbridge. There was only one thing to do. I scribbled out the entire essay and wrote a hasty comparison of Elinor and Constance instead. The teacher, who didn't like me, was delighted that I didn't get an A and told me I shouldn't be studying English.
I have odd memories of other exams, including my last Geography paper. I had never passed a Geography exam in my life but I wrote rapidly, trying to recall my notes. Then, when I found myself with more time, I began to invent. I hope the examiner enjoyed my vivid account of logging on the forested mountainsides of Denmark. (I borrowed the facts from Norway. After all, I reasoned, it's all Scandanavia.)
My last essay was my piece de resistance. I was asked to compare the ways in which transport was adapted to environment in four contrasting parts of the world. This was my sort of question. I decided I would fail gloriously and chose the Amazon jungle, the Sahara Desert, the North Pole and Britain. I outlined the problems Father Christmas would face if he tried to travel by sleigh in the Amazon jungle. Tarzan wouldn't find it easy to swing through the trees in the Sahara Desert, I said. He'd have to wait a long time for a bus too. "On the other hand," I remarked, "I once had to wait more than an hour for a 73 bus in the Upper Richmond Road." And so it went on.
I wrote a note to the examiner at the end, congratulating him on reaching the end of my paper and commiserating with his misery at marking it. I added that "Kilmarnock carpets are made in the Killybegs". I'd learnt the fact and it seemed a shame to waste it. And then I included my favourite Latin quotation from Aeneid I: "Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit" (Perhaps one day it will be a pleasure to remember even this.)
That was the only Geography exam I ever passed. Sometimes thought and imagination (and nerve) win out over rote learning. These days I don't think I'd have been entered for the exam. I certainly wouldn't have seemed a good bet for A-levels.
Today, exams are accompanied by celebrations and rituals, many borrowed from the United States. There's a school leavers' assembly - I'm not sure what happens there. And for many children, there's the school prom. It's an expensive, dressy event - an evening meal and dance. Not all pupils can afford to attend. Suits and posh frocks are expected - wedding shops have branched out to offer "prom dresses". Some pupils arrive in stretch limousines. It's extravagant and socially divisive.
At least this year's prom is relatively cheap: £25 for each 15- or 16-year-old. But the venue is in the outskirts of a neighbouring city, twelve miles away. The prom finishes later than the last bus and train. Obviously the school assumes that all parents have cars, or can afford 25-minutes in a taxi.