School matters column with Dennis Richards

Spare a thought for our 16 and 18 year olds who are taking their exams.
Spare a thought for our 16 and 18 year olds who are taking their exams.

Amidst the misery inflicted on us by terrorism and the febrile atmosphere of a General Election, let’s spare a thought for our 16 and 18 year olds, embroiled in the middle of their GCSE and A Level examinations.

In these troubling times, they have to concentrate their minds on the task in hand. Not easy. Made even harder because in the examination world, the times they are a-changing.

In GCSE the students will receive their results in August in a different form from recent years.

The long accepted measure of GCSE national average success of 5A*-C grades is changing.

In English Language, English Literature and Maths this year, students and parents will be puzzling over grades ranging from 1-9.

You may have surmised that a Grade 1 is the top grade. In fact it is the opposite.

Grade 9 is supposedly a new grade, and the equivalent of an A**.

For the 2017 cohort, grades in the other GCSE subjects will continue to be A*-C.

The GCSE examination results slip this year will, therefore, become something of a collector’s item…. a bit neither one thing nor the other.

They will have fun explaining their results to future generations.

So, what’s the thinking?

Well, two-fold really. There will now be six pass grades instead of four.

Grades 4-9 will be “pass” grades to enable “greater discrimination”.

The real reason is more likely to be the perception that too many students are currently achieving the top grades.

Each succeeding generation believes that “exams were harder in our day”.

I don’t see why it is that different in athletics.

Jesse Owens held the world 100m record in 1936 with a time of 10.2.

The 10 second barrier was first broken in 1960.

Usain Bolt is the current world record holder with a time of 9.58.

I am aware that running tracks are infinitely superior now, that training methods are on a different scale.

I am not aware that the 100m distance is no longer 100m.

Examinations are still examinations.

They’re just different.

Difficulty doesn’t come into it.

In any case, it is always helpful to remind our students that exams are not the be all and end all.

A reminder came earlier this week.

Whatever one’s view of the June 8 date for the election, it is at least somewhat unfortunate that it has overshadowed the 73rd anniversary of the greatest amphibious landing in history.

As every year the grateful citizens of Normandy paid tribute, earlier this week, on D Day the 6 June, to the Allied soldiers, sailors and airmen who secured their liberation in 1944.

The daring and ingenuity of the plan to create artificial harbours, and thus to hoodwink Hitler, by landing where he least expected it, was ultimately down to Winston Churchill.

Churchill’s description of examinations is a memorably straightforward one.

“I should have liked to be asked to say what I knew. They always tried to ask what I did not know.”

He follows with a hilarious description of his entrance exam to Harrow.

“I wrote my name at the top of the paper. I wrote down the number of the question “1”.

“After much reflection I put a bracket round it thus “(1)” Thereafter I could not think of anything connected with it.

“Incidentally there arrived from nowhere in particular a blot and several smudges.”

The decision to admit him to the school, he concedes, is on the most “slender indications of scholarship”.

His genius, both as a leader and as a scholar, appears not, in his own words, to be “dependent on paper manifestations” in examinations.

Parents and students….take heart.

All will be well.