At the chalkface: Pressure drop

Written by: Ian Whitwham | Published:

Like a boxer’s second you give the same fatuous tips. Get in early, get lots of nutritional sleep and breakfast, get in the zone, get your timing right, don’t think too much, and don’t swear at the referee/examiner. Yeah. Yeah.

“What you do today will echo through eternity!” boomed my old head of English with mock solemnity at the trembling hordes before their GCSE Literature exam. A line from Gladiator. Half the tots smiled or laughed, hip to hyperbole or humour. Half looked puzzled, blank or just plain terrified. Not hip to it. Couldn’t we have just given them a D grade, passed the rest, and gone home?

Probably not. Exams are not the time for levity.

Well, the season is again upon us. Stress and anxiety and migraine and meltdown rule, especially for the more sensitive and imaginative and clever. Brutally reductive, these exams are a mere fever of information retrieval to be regurgitated like acid reflux.

Like a boxer’s second you give the same fatuous tips. Get in early, get lots of nutritional sleep and breakfast, get in the zone, get your timing right, don’t think too much, and don’t swear at the referee/examiner. Yeah. Yeah.

Surely there are some positives? Aren’t we freed up for these last six weeks from the treadmill? Can’t we all chill a little? Nope. Not at all. The rest of the school must also be tested to destruction with exams. The only purpose of this is to find out what we know already.

“We must keep the pressure up,” says the demon head.

It’s a form of control. Without exams you might actually have to interest children, actually do some real education. We could actually teach what we want.

Before the National Curriculum, my old school abandoned the formal curriculum. We were free to teach our enthusiasms. Pupils could take the odd lesson. We mixed age groups and subjects up. It was an academic smorgasbord. I could take the 7th year cricket team or teach blues and jazz. John Lee Hooker and Charlie Parker. It went down a treat.

I took my 12th year to Blake’s church in St James or Dickens’ law courts in Chancery Lane or Milton’s cottage in Chalfont St Giles where, blind, he dictated the last books of Paradise Lost – all nutritious cultural fare and a nice day out.

I sometimes took the tots to London Zoo, the science museum, city farms or fairgrounds. Shaka got lost in a dinosaur, Decibelle saw her first live sheep and Geena and Ronald found true romance in the Tunnel of Love at Margate’s Dreamland. The tryst ended up in marriage. Ah. We learned all kinds of things. Today’s management would have kittens at this. They just don’t get it. They run an exam regime which is worse than ever.

Maybe the head of department was more prescient than he knew. Maybe what happens today will echo through eternity. As trauma.

  • Ian Whitwham is a former inner city London teacher.


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