Exam Fever

( Something I wrote a while ago, but re-living it now!)

I will be glad when this year’s exam epidemic is over.

Glad when every  surface in our house is not covered by an untidy carpet of revision books, coloured paper, broken pens and biscuit wrappers.

Glad when our 15 year old son can stop spending his evenings revisionally reclining on the sofa and return to spending them in the park with friends, playing euphamistic football in the dark. 

Glad when our 17 year old daughter can return to worrying about boys-parties-clothes–bad hair days  (am I really saying this?!) rather than French vocabulary and psychology case studies.

But most of all, I will be glad to stop pretending that exams are the most important thing in the world.

Because I really don’t believe they are.

I don’t believe that they are a fair test of what we know. or a way of making us care about what we learn.


We’ve all been there, feverishly filling every last minute with exam-cramming, spending sleepless nights worrying about all the things we don’t know, trying to remember what we’ve forgotten, turning our brains into bloated sponges, dripping  with too many temporary facts and too much unnecessary information.

I’m not sure exactly what it is that our exam system tests:

memory…..mostly, 

will power… perhaps,

the ability to make your writing legible under pressure.. maybe.

But with GCSE’s in particular, I’m not sure how much students actually learn.

Having to revise for so many different subjects, so close together, (our son is taking 21 exams in the space of 4 weeks) makes it hard to retain anything for longer than the length of the exam.  You don’t just leave the hall when you finish your exam, you also leave behind everything you have learnt for that subject, otherwise there just won’t be enough space in your brain for the next one.

May and June seem to just be ” one bloody exam after another.”

And what exactly will the students have achieved at the end of it all.

Have they been  inspired with  a love of learning? A thirst for knowledge? The desire to find out more?

Mostly, completely the opposite..

” Son sat English Lit. GCSE today,” wrote one of my very good friends on Facebook ” told me that he now never has to read another book….So Proud” 

And she’s not alone, many of us are feeling proud in the same way.

Somehow we are managing to make our kids despise learning rather than love it.

It’s not that what they are learning isn’t important or interesting, it’s just that sitting all day, learning things off-by-heart, never stops being boring and in the end, what you remember is the boredom, not the subject.

How often do books that we love turn into books that we hate because we have analysed every sentence to death?

 Language that once seemed beautiful becomes the stuff of nightmares.

Subjects that we once loved become a series of boring, uninspiring facts in our desperate desire to simply remember them.

” Can you test me on my French sentences,” asks our son, before his spoken French exam.

And I test him and he’s pretty good, he’s learnt them really well.

” There’s just one bit,” I say, ” you got the tense wrong, think about what it means.”

He rolls his eyes at me.

” It doesn’t matter what it means,” he says, ”  I just have to remember it right.” 

That’s what our exam system is doing to our kids. 

 Making them learn things “right,” so that they can pass exams, not so that they can understand what they mean or gain an insight to their wider significance. 

I understand and remember nothing of the physics or chemistry I crammed for my GCSEs.

 I still believe I am rubbish at maths and although I loved geography, all I can remember about it, is drawing bad pictures of animals in Polar landscapes and that rocks have different layers, although all these years on, I’m not really sure why.

Like rocks, the acquisition of knowledge should be a layering process.

Each layer providing firm foundations for the next.

Learning shouldn’t be a lot of temporary,, flimsy structures designed only to last until we have got the required grades.

We need to help children understand that learning things, finding out more about what they see or hear, gives their world a depth and beauty it wouldn’t otherwise have.

We want to make them excited about the fact that everything they do is an opportunity to learn something new.

We need to inspire a hunger for knowledge, an interest in the world around them, a belief that finding out more about ” things,” makes those “things,” more interesting, meaningful and useful.

Somehow our education system has lost its direction and as a result, our children have lost their way.

And we need to help them find their way back to a place where they are proud of what they know, eager to learn more because they are inspired by the potential of all they do not know.

I’m not sure how it can be done but I am sure that our exam system is not the way to do it.

Socrates said: 


“Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.” 

 I wish we’d listened because our exam system seems to be all about temporary vessel -filling and very little about permanently flame-lighting.

I turn back to the revision chaos that used to be our living room.

And with all my heart, i hope our kids do well in their exams.

They deserve to, they’ve worked really hard (if that is what helps you pass).

But most of all I hope they realise that there are things you can’t figure out from a revision book, that life is too small to fit between the walls of a classroom, that learning doesn’t end with a full stop and handing in an exam paper.

The world is out there waiting for them, full of beauty and pain and unanswered questions.

I hope, that when they have finished their last exam, they will still want to step into it full of awe and wonder and a desire to try and find the answers.

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