Posts Tagged ‘A-Levels’

Fifty years on…

July 3, 2022

The older you get, the more anniversaries there are; it recently occurred to me that it’s now 50 years since I sat my A Levels… good grief! And what a simple business it all was way back then. All exams, for a start: no continuous assessment, no coursework or anything like that. Just sit in silence and write and write and write.

English literature (well, obviously); I think we’d studied eight set books and only had to write about six, so there was a choice. Othello and King Lear, Doctor Faustus, Paradise Lost 9 & 10, Chaucer’s Merchant’s Prologue and Tale, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, The Shadow of a Gunman, Andrew Marvell’s poetry… is that all of them? Don’t recall which I avoided…

French: dictation, I remember, unseen and prose translation, essay, and literature. Le Mariage de Figaro, Le Roi Se Meurt, Servitude et Grandeur Militaires, Confession de Minuit. The killer was, that French Lit and one of the English lit papers were timetabled on the same day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon; eight essays altogether and I remember I filled thirty-six sides of foolscap (predecessor to A4 if you need to know) that day and had a seriously sore hand.

Latin of Classical Civilisation (yes, weird title) with unseen, prose translation, a Roman history paper and set books, though I can no longer remember what they all were, apart from tiresome Livy Book 30.

I’d already passed two A levels in previous years so I knew what to expect, roughly, and I had my revision plan and just powered on through it; I certainly have no recollections of pressure from other or myself, and no stress about any of it, either. Innocent days, perhaps; the end of school, certainly. I recall getting pissed in the village pub, raiding the kitchens where we took and ate all the strawberries, a naked dip in the freezing pool and ceremonial urination on the cricket pitch. Then it was all over.

I had offers from three of the five universities I’d applied to and had fallen in love with Liverpool, so that was my first choice. With two A levels already, and since I’d originally applied to read Latin and French, my offer was one D grade, in French. Results day meant an envelope in the post and a scrawled note from my tutor saying, ‘That should be good enough for Liverpool’ (about my 2 As and a C). Done. Except my A in English Literature was making me review my options, and I knew I’d really rather read English than Latin. So I wrote and asked – I’d already made the rather unusual for those days request for deferred entry – could I change my course based on my results. That would be fine, they said.

Do I make it all sound far too easy? Maybe. I did take naturally to study, because I enjoyed the subjects and they fascinated me; I was also quite an organised student, and I had really good teachers. I put in the time and did the work; at a Catholic boarding school there were few other distractions, which meant I was rather a slow learner in other areas of life.

What I took away from the whole experience is rather more important: a deep love of literature and languages instilled by teachers with a genuine passion for their subjects, and I suspect already at that time the prospect of becoming a teacher and passing on some of that enjoyment to future students was beginning to form itself somewhere deep in my unconscious.

What I realise now is the simplicity of those days, without pressure or expectation, which students of today cannot know or enjoy; no real thoughts about what would come after university; the comfort of knowing that with my place would come a grant to cover my living expenses, and the course costs I didn’t even have to think about, because there were no tuition fees. I have often wished that such freedom was on offer nowadays, because I have always been a great believer in learning for learning’s sake, and studying what you enjoy, rather than because it will bring you a high salary. I’m aware that university students were an elite then, a very small percentage of the population rather than today’s 50%. The greater democratisation and accessibility of higher education is surely a good thing, but I’m also aware that it’s primarily a great money-making opportunity for so many different people, with the needs and rights of the actual students quite a way down the list of priorities.

I’ll finish with a line from Virgil. Forsan et olim haec meminisse juvabit…

50 years on…

December 24, 2021

For some reason, it came into my head that 2022 will mark half a century (!) since I did my A levels and left school. The sense of of the relentless passage of time was rather overwhelming, and I turned to reflecting on my world of so long ago. A Catholic boarding school; no sense of health and safety or safeguarding as we know them nowadays. From the naivety of the priests who ran it, a great sense of freedom in those heady days of the late sixties and early seventies. Much discovery of music, sexuality, astonishing films on TV… laying the foundations for my student days…

And, from the good teachers there, the inspirational ones, the push to be curious, explore the world of knowledge, art and literature. An amazing French teacher, years ahead of his time, who actually concentrated on getting us to speak the language, an English teacher who allowed and encouraged us to read anything and everything, a classics teacher who gave me a lifelong love of Latin and things and places Roman. No chance of becoming a scientist: no-one to teach Maths or sciences beyond O level. Was I bothered? Only much later on did I realise what roads had never been open to me, and by then any regret was pointless, futile: I was already me.

What remains today is the abiding feeling that learning is a lifelong activity, and that humans have a developed brain and a sense of reasoning for a deliberate purpose; yes, the priests’ message was laced with religious arguments, but for me the precepts are good in a secular world too. Since I left school all those years ago, at various points in my life I have chosen to go and learn German, Italian, Spanish, Yoga, and I have taught myself the art of bread-making and learned a lot about IT. From the relatively narrow field of my A level studies, my reading has broadened out in many directions…

Perhaps such attitudes meant that it was inevitable I would become a teacher myself… I don’t know. But I do hope I passed on some of that curiosity to those I taught.

I’m conscious of how much easier life generally, and schooling in particular, was in those long-ago days. You learned what you needed to learn for the exams, practised writing essays and sat the exams. No coursework, no continuous assessment, no relentless data-based pressure to make progress, and thereby enhance the school’s results and marketability. I have no memories of stress; perhaps I was lucky – I worked out how to be organised and get things done, and those habits have stood me in good stead.

Regrets? As I’ve aged, I’ve been aware of having missed out on sport and music. Back then, if you were keen and already capable, then games teachers were interested in you and encouraged you; if, like me, you knew nothing and couldn’t play, they were completely uninterested in helping or teaching you; you were bored, ignored, shivering and freezing on the edge of the field, and your lifetime loathing of sport grew early and long. With similar friends, I learned the joys of walking and rambling; that’s it for my physical activity. Music was the same: I now wish I could play an instrument, but there was never the opportunity. My voice broke early, so I was forbidden to sing lest I put others off. Just in case anyone is envious of the simplicity and freedom of those long-gone schooldays, there were those downsides, too.

I liked school. My father, who had only four winters’ worth of Polish rural schooling to his credit, encouraged me in my learning journey and I’ve never forgotten that. Education was the gateway to the world and to possibilities.

On being tested (not for COVID!)

June 2, 2020

Something brought to my mind the horrifying realisation that it’s half a century this month since I did my O-Levels, which were the end-of school examinations at age 16 in England way back then. This has had me reflecting on the experience of being tested, which seems to happen a great deal more frequently than in my younger days…

I took the 11+ shortly before my tenth birthday (for some unknown reason, Lincolnshire County Council allowed you a go at age 10 if your school wanted you to, as well as the usual attempt at 11. I knew that it was an important test, on which my future education possibilities depended, and wanted to pass; the headmaster of our primary school coached a small group of us and I was successful. I have no recollection of the experience being stressful, and found the test itself quite straightforward and rather strange in places – I recall a (presumably mathematical) question about an election in which each of the candidates received exactly the same number of votes (2 each).

I was at a small Catholic boarding school when O-Levels came around. For some of the subjects I was aware we were following some kind of course; there were set books to study in English, RE and Latin, for instance, and specific topics to cover in History and Geography. None of the work felt particularly onerous, and I had some idea of the kind of questions I might meet. There was a French oral with an external examiner which required me to read a passage aloud and then converse with him about whatever came up…

I contrast my experience with that of students nowadays, including many of those whom I taught in a career of nearly thirty years: I felt very little pressure or stress, either from myself or my teachers. I have been fortunate in that I evolved a system for organising revision which stood me in good stead through all the stages of my education: no revising after 9pm, and no last-minute panic in the morning, so avoid conversations with peers about the upcoming exam. Triage of material: this stuff I know and understand pretty well, this stuff here needs a more careful look over, this other stuff I really do need to work on…

What was different then? Why did I feel more stressed about whether I’d get through three hours of exam without needing a pee, than about the questions on the paper? You were being assessed on what you knew and understood, and the examination wasn’t competitive, in the sense that there would only be a certain percentage of each grade awarded. There was also a trust in the markers and marking, which increasingly disappeared during my teaching career with the increase in the number of papers and exams, and the ever more complicated descriptors and mark schemes. These, along with markers being increasingly badly paid, led to people almost but not quite being dragged in off the street to do the work. I don’t think university places depended so much on grades at age 16, whereas everything seems to be taken into account nowadays. On the other hand, for many universities, O-Level Latin was a must for matriculation…

I felt supported by my parents, and my teachers, whose jobs and future prospects did not depend on how well we managed to do in our exams: they did their job, we did our work and it all came out in the wash.

A-Levels were a similar performance, and university applications and interviews – yes, they were important and pretty much de rigueur – a very gentlemanly business. The professor of French and I chatted and discussed whatever, until at a certain moment he said, “Bien, continuons en français!” (which we did) – I hadn’t expected that, but it was fine.

University exams were more stressful, because I developed hay-fever, which plagues me to this day, even as I write, and because they were in enormous exam halls with vast numbers of invigilators, some of whom thought it was OK to chat in the corners of the exam rooms… I loved my MA exam, because it was my first and only experience of a takeaway exam: we trooped in to collect the paper from the office at a set time and were instructed to return our scripts a fortnight later. And the viva for my MPhil thesis was a very civilised affair over a good lunch at the home of an academic, with two examiners, a hard man and a soft man. A serious grilling, though.

My most stressful experience of being tested came in a practical field: learning to drive. I passed only at the third attempt, finding the whole ordeal much more gruelling than most of my peers. I’m sure this was right, given that letting someone loose on the road in ton of metal that can move at up to 100mph or so is a very serious business. I’m still grateful to the friend and neighbour who insisted on my driving to the Lake District and back in her tiny Fiat 500 the day before my successful test, building up my confidence enormously and convincing me that I could be a driver.

I’ve read about countries where there are no examinations; I’ve read about countries where things are much more competitive and stressful. As a teacher, I experienced and administered 100% continuously-assessed coursework, which produced comparable results to examinations, but without the pressure and stress on students. So what is it all in aid of? How many ways can you weigh a pig? To a large extent, I think we’re victims of the fact that there have always been examinations, and as a society we have failed to think seriously enough about their purpose or necessity. Also, because data collection and analysis is now so easy and a money-making business in itself, the end justifies the means, and we are persuaded to believe that it’s fairer, more scientific, more accurate and a whole lot of other subjective things.

I have had to support students through the stress of their own expectations and their parents’ expectations of themselves. Some suffered greatly, and unnecessarily; sometimes they gave up. Some people can function effectively under pressure in examinations, some cannot; this does not mean they are incapable.

I’m no expert, but I have experience, personal and professional. I can not see any point in exams at age 16, since we expect students to remain in education until 18. Perhaps there is a need for some kind of certification of competences at a certain level in a few areas such as language, maths and IT at the end of schooling. Unless we plan to limit the numbers moving on to higher education, then what’s needed is an assessment of whether someone is capable of accessing and potentially succeeding at the next stage: this doesn’t have to be by examination…

Finally, I remind myself that examinations are now a vast industry: writing and rewriting syllabi, writing and publishing textbooks, producing exam papers and marking them, analysing all the data, providing training courses… the money recycling goes on ad infinitum. And who is it all serving?

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