Examination Report

Posted on: 13 June 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves

For as long as I live, I will always associate the month of June with superhuman mental effort.


One of the few compensations of growing long in the tooth (he says, adjusting his reading glasses and rubbing the back of his repetitively strained hand) is that you’ll probably never have to sit an exam again.

For as long as I live, I will always associate the month of June with superhuman mental effort. Revision and written examination: the “final frontier” before the long blissful months of summer when you could stop worrying about history, geography and, heaven help us, mathematics.

All those hours of childhood spent shut up every June in my monastic bedroom. Other kids would be playing in the alleyway between our two parallel tree-lined avenues in Belfast, and I would be jotting notes on scrap paper from my father’s office. My bed surrounded by separate piles of paper for each subject. The days ticked off methodically on my revision timetable. Ah, happy days…

Hmm. Only with age comes the necessary perspective to realise that one might have been better doing a paper-round than perfecting outlines of north-east Scotland’s coast, complete with arrows to show the importation of jute to Dundee.

Entrepreneurial skills, I’ve subsequently learnt, count rather more in life than the ability to regurgitate facts in a three-hour test of mental stamina.

At least I can pass on the benefits of my insights to our daughter. Ironically, however, like many children she believes that words of truth and wisdom come only from the mouths of teachers.

She is the product of an educational system rather different to the one I remember. Our self-imposed exile abroad has given us a fascinating glimpse into the way it functions.

Whereas the system of my youth prepared us to pass or, in some cases of course, to fail exams, the French system prepares you to be a good citizen of the Republic.

It embraced our daughter at the age of 2½ and gradually, imperceptibly but very deliberately it moulded her into shape. One thing I’m proud of, however, is the fact that she’s assimilated the best lessons while never sacrificing her individuality.

And there are some very good lessons to be learned. She has studied SVT or Science de la Vie et de la Terre for many years, learning about how the human body works among other practical things. And Education Civique teaches her about civic laws, social obligations and consideration for her fellow citizens. It doesn’t, as I fervently advocate, teach her how to be a good parent, but since the educational system kicks in at such a tender age, the omission is maybe not so critical here.

Her progress has been assessed continually – by project work and endless short sharp tests. In primary school, she was given frequent assignments to learn poems and passages of prose in order to repeat them word-perfectly in front of the class. As a result, she has prodigious powers of recall.

Yet the strange thing is, earlier this year, at the age of 13, she sat her first ever exams – in preparation for next June’s Brevet Blanc, which represents the first part of the baccalauréat, the culmination of her school career.

My wife and I sat her down for a pep-talk in the hope of helping her find a fruitful middle way through our two extremes: Deborah’s last-minute panic preparations for exams and my relentless campaigns of Total Revision. Of course, we were forgetting the fact that parents know diddly-squat.

Nevertheless, she (reluctantly) accepted a few crumbs of our combined wisdom. And, with some gentle reminders, she did enough preparatory work to ensure that she came out top of her class. Or was this due more to two other factors: the fact that she’s a bright child and that the system failed her fellow pupils by not preparing them for competitive exams?

Anyway, now that she’s seen that a little systematic preparation can reap rewards and given her pride in personal achievement, she may be more willing to learn from her father’s invaluable, if bitter, experience.

“Thank heavens for little girls.” And thank heavens that next June it will be she and not I shut away in a bedroom, slaving away over a hot textbook. I’ll be busy conserving my remaining mental strength for the trials of my “third age”.

Mark Sampson, June 2008

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