Fear and loathing – how to approach school exams

What did O-levels do for me? With various dark murmurings about a return to the reliance on exams at 16, rather than the current part course-work, part exam arrangement, I experienced again the thrill of terror that afflicted me the night before my GCEs.

When you’re young, there are certain things you cannot imagine. At the age of 14, I couldn’t imagine what falling in love must be like even though my friend was fixated on Davy Jones from the Monkees and assured me it was the real thing. I knew I could never fall for a man with one eyebrow.

Another classmate had a proper boyfriend. He was an older man. He was in the sixth form and had a motor scooter and a Parka which, in 1969, was tantamount to being engaged to a millionaire.

“Have you let him kiss you?” we asked on the Monday afternoon after their first date during the school lunch break.

“Oh, no,” she said, shocked.


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They were different times. He chucked her Tuesday lunchtime just before double physics which was harsh.

Not wishing to be left out, I tried hard to fancy someone.

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At an all-girls school the only men you see are teachers. French teacher Mr Morcom appeared to be the youngest but he was ruled out because of his beard. Mr Jenkins, maths, taught maths and Mr Williams, geography, wore a corduroy jacket.

No, boyfriends were not yet for me... I didn’t even need a bra yet. (That all changed when I hit 15, by the way).

But along with love, I couldn’t imagine taking my exams. I was lucky enough to have passed my 11-plus and went to a grammar school. It was a place where academic success was celebrated irrespective of pupils’ backgrounds. Poor; rich, it didn’t matter as long as you were acquainted with pi, knew the difference between a simile and a metaphor and didn’t blow up the chemistry lab.

The whole thing culminated in O-levels. It was simple in 1970, there were only about 14 subjects on offer. There were the ones I did want to take – two English papers, history and art; the ones I had to take but didn’t really want to – French, maths, geography and human biology; and the one I chose as the lesser of several evils, German.

Yes, nine. That was all we did back then except for the clever dicks who took maths a year early and then did even more maths at 16.

I can honestly say that after my maths O-level I never used a book of logarithms again. No more dalliances with sines and co-sines. No more protractor. No more getting to B via A and C without the use of a bus.

German I deservedly failed but it didn’t hit me that hard. An element of planned failure can be character forming. At primary school, if I hadn’t failed to make it into the shinty team, I might never have had to write the match reports and might never have ruled out sports journalism.

My task was to read out my report at assembly and it lasted as long as the match as I described every pass of the ball. My headmaster, Mr Poulter, used to intervene after about 10 minutes.

“And so, Lynne, what was the final score?”

And I would shuffle through my sheaf of papers, often finding I hadn’t actually written it down.

Last week we heard about the English Baccalaureate Certificate. Intended to replace GCSEs, the new-style qualification will be known as Ebaccs, which are not small furry creatures as featured in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. Pity.

The idea, I understand, is to reintroduce the traditional exam and put an end to what Michael Gove has called “grade inflation and dumbing down”.

Personally, I am grateful that I was never called upon to produce course work. It would have required my concentration throughout the year, not just in the week before the exams. As for dumbing down, I barely understood any of my children’s GCSE work.

When Ruth or Mark asked for help with their homework, I sent them straight to their dad who would mouth “thank you very much” at me as he tackled textbook after textbook of new-fangled learning.

What my education gave me, exams apart, was a good grounding in some fundamental life skills such as being able to talk sensibly on a topic, good manners (now re-named positive behaviour), and how to concoct stories/injuries to get me out of showers after gym. I was helped on by inspirational teachers who, while they failed to find my still undiscovered genius, at least conveyed enough knowledge to give me a fighting chance in a pub quiz.

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