How sitting an exam re-affirmed my respect for our students

I still believe exams to be the best way of testing academic knowledge and understanding but they’re no bagatelle, says James Handscombe

I still believe exams to be the best way of testing academic knowledge and understanding but they’re no bagatelle, says James Handscombe

James Handscombe, executive principal of Harris Westminster Sixth Form, has told students to stop calling teachers sir or miss

17 Aug 2023, 14:00

“I was twenty-one years when I wrote this song. I’m twenty-two now, but I won’t be for long.” So begins Paul Simon’s Leaves that are green, as well as Billy Bragg’s A new England, famously covered by Kirsty McColl.

Time hurries on, as the original goes. But while there is some truth to Gillian Keegan’s take this morning that ‘no one will ask what your A level results were in ten year’s time’, that takes nothing away from their importance today. Indeed, it offers only cold comfort to those whose educational experience continues to be defined by the pandemic and our response to it.

I lined up for my A level results in 1992. (Actually, I had them phoned through to a dairy farm in Switzerland, but that’s another story.) Since 1999, I have been ‘enjoying’ the experience vicariously through my students. This year, however, I had a result of my own to collect.

My colleagues had challenged me to take a STEP paper (the hardest exam in school mathematics) and out of curiosity I’d agreed. I wanted to see if I could still cut it mathematically. After all, 1992 is a really long time ago. But I also wanted to re-connect with the student experience. What is it really like to take an exam today?

My notes from the front line are that it’s harder than I thought. Fitting revision into a full week was near-impossible. I found myself doing practice questions on holiday instead – in airports, on trains, lying on a blanket with an ill-considered glass of retsina in one hand. Students who have unusually full lives with part-time jobs or caring responsibilities and who still manage to keep on top of their studies are truly to be admired.

On the day itself, I didn’t feel on top form. (Yes, I’m getting my excuses in early here.) Nothing awful; just a bit sluggish, under the weather. If I’d been doing a practice paper I’d have rescheduled for when I felt more like it. But of course the real thing affords no such opportunity.

Maintaining focus for three hours is a challenge of endurance that I struggled with

I don’t know whether doing a series of exams is better for this because you get into a rhythm, or worse because you’re bound to hit a bad day at some point. Unfortunately for pursuers of empirical data, I have no intention of sitting a sequence of exams next year to find out.

My final finding is that choice in an exam is petrifying. The STEP exam presents you with twelve questions, from which you choose up to six. This looks great from the outside; you can choose to attempt the ones you’ll do best at. Sitting at the exam desk though, it was horrible. How do I know what I’ll do best at until I’ve done it?

Even reading through all twelve questions is a lengthy process, and a torturous one with the awareness that the clock is ticking. And ticking. And ticking.

Which reminds me: Maintaining focus for three hours is a challenge of endurance that I struggled with. (I firmly believe I’d have done better had I been allowed to bring a packet of polos into the exam room, but alas…)

So I doff my cap to the students who sat that exam as well as a stream of A levels. I am but a dabbling amateur in a world of professionals.

I have also emerged with a heightened respect and sympathy for all those who take exams of any form. I still believe them to be the best way of testing academic knowledge and understanding, but they’re no bagatelle. We do well by our students to remember that as acutely as possible, especially as most will have been walking into an exam hall for the first time in their lives.

And if you’re curious about my result, it was good enough that I’ll tell you if you ask me. Some did better, as I suspect my 18-year-old self would have done.

The leaves that are green turn to brown. But they don’t wither with the wind all that quickly. Those who promise us a new England should perhaps bear that in mind.

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