At the chalkface: Echoing through eternity

Written by: Ian Whitwham | Published:

It’s a line from Gladiator. He smiled. We smiled. They didn’t. Most didn’t get it. It didn’t spread calm, it spread varieties of panic. Many examinees were in such a state of hysteria, they believed him...

The exam season blooms like a tumour. Pupils go pale and wan, parents fret and worry – and teachers try to calm the poor mites down. It’s not easy. I remember my old head of department trying to take the heat out of things at the start of a big English exam: 250 poor souls were sitting their GCSE at dawn in the exam hall, quaking, anxious, drugged, sleepless or in a quiet rage. He smiled, paused, and in a comically booming voice, went hyperbolic: “What you do today will echo through eternity.”

It’s a line from Gladiator. He smiled. We smiled. They didn’t. Most didn’t get it. It didn’t spread calm, it spread varieties of panic. Many examinees were in such a state of hysteria, they believed him.

An A grade will echo through eternity? Fine. Maybe a C grade also? Good. But what of failure? Would a D grade consign you to perpetual oblivion? Probably.

Why did we do this to them? Well, exams are even more fraught since Gove got his mitts on them. So much more rides on them. They cause even more distress. This distress is often chemical. Two pieces of recent research reveal this.

Hot weather makes you stupid. Research at Harvard reports that it causes poor grades. Any temperature past 21C (70F) has negative effects. You go dozy, you go cognitively errant. So why have GCSEs in flaming June?

And teenagers are chemically nuts in other ways. Last week Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, a professor in cognitive neuroscience at University College London, told the Hay Festival of “revolutionary” discoveries about the 16-year-old brain. It’s like being visited by aliens. They can’t help it. We shouldn’t demonise them. Meltdowns just descend on them.

There is a big rise in white matter and a 17 per cent fall in grey matter. Crumbs. What hope for Dave Mania? He may intellectually go into the red.

And melatonin is produced a couple of hours later in adolescence. It makes them sleepy. They should be tucked up in their beds. Their body clock goes bonkers. Their brains hurt. They go daft.

So why have exams at 16?

“Given our children have to stay on until 18, we don’t need those exams. Why do we still have GCSEs at this precise moment in time?” asks Prof Blakemore. Indeed. Why have them at all?

We know what our pupils can do without all this examining.

The head of department apologised for creating panic and quietly suggested that deeds done that morning, illustrious or wretched, would not be echoing through eternity. This only obfuscated things further. I can’t remember if that year’s results changed significantly from their predicted grades.

  • Ian Whitwham is a former inner city London teacher.


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