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I don’t know why I decided to sit a GCSE at age 50. I have been studying Latin on and off for about 3 years at evening class – something I had always promised myself I would do. But I was happy just pottering along, satisfying my curiosity, why did I decide to put myself through an exam?

It was all Queenie’s fault. The idea only surfaced when Queenie announced that she wanted to sit a GCSE. At age 13, Queenie is a linguistic genius with several GCSEs in modern languages under her belt already. Once Queenie joined my Latin class, the pace really picked up. I had been the star pupil before Queenie joined: in fact, I was often the only pupil, and certainly the only one that bothered to do homework. Now I had competition, and I didn’t much like it.

So when Queenie said she was going to sit GCSE, I said I would it do it too. “She needs a running mate.” I declared, graciously. Running mate be damned! There was no way I was going to be beaten by a 13 year old! (Of course, back then I had no idea I would have an operation a few weeks before the first exam.)

So what is it like to sit exams at 50? It is nearly 30 years since I last sat in an exam hall, and I can tell you it feels exactly the same. These exams don’t mean anything to me: I have my career, thank you, and there is nothing a GCSE in Latin can give me, but it still feels the same. You still feel nervous walking in. The trestle desk feels just as flimsy as it did back then, and the same person has scored their initials on it in a fit of boredom during a Geography exam, along with the word FAIL. The same fidgety person is sitting in the seat next to you, sucking sweets. Your heart still races when you look up at the clock and see you have less time left than you thought. And when you hand in your paper you still go home and look up the words you didn’t know in the heat of the moment, and you know despair.

I thought it would be interesting to remind myself what my kids were going through. I was astonished to find that I was still so very nervous, even though I don’t have any pressure on me at all to succeed except what I put on myself. My kids, of course, have plenty of pressure: slip a grade, and they don’t get to study at the sixth form college or the university of their first choice. In principle, slip a grade, and it might be difficult to do some things in life at all (though this risk is greatly exaggerated by teachers, I find).

So to all teenagers everywhere, sitting exams in this June heat, I salute you: it is every bit as hard as you say.

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I have been quiet for a while, immersing myself in keeping the household running, and everyone on an even keel while they sit exams. We are about half way through now and so far no one has missed breakfast, and no one has run screaming out of an exam hall. So that’s a success in my book.

Most of my (at home) job is reactive at the moment: I sit around being available for the next person who needs help with revision, or to go on a walk, or just to be distracted for a bit. We have watched lots of films (Julie) and documentaries (Duncan) and a lot of very silly sitcoms (everyone). I have explained calculus in words of one syllable, learnt the German word for mobile phone and copied out quotes from Lord of the Flies.

Meanwhile I have been having a battery of medical tests. How can so many tests involve fasting? It is cruel and unnatural. But the results of these tests are that I am in rude good health. Any pain I experience now is either imaginary or cannot be explained by current medical science. How charming to be told that lots of women of my age report similar pain – no hurry to try and find out what the problem is then. But the main thing is, I’m not going to die from it.

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When Julie started at sixth form, the very first thing the Maths department did was sit down the whole cohort of Maths students and give them an exam. They wanted to sort out who needed what help to get through the A level. Actually, I think that’s a very good idea: it focuses resources where they’re needed, and makes sure the students understand where they need to put in the extra work. It’s surely the opposite of one-size-fits-all.

But of course it all depends how you handle the kids who don’t do very well in your test. Can you resist the temptation to imply that they are defective? That, but for them, one size really would fit all?

On the basis of her mark in this exam, Julie was duly assigned to the remedial group, needing extra tuition, and given extra homework to complete. A letter was sent home explaining this and making it quite clear that if she didn’t pull her socks up and do better by the end of the first half-term, she might not be sitting her A level in Maths at all. It was one of those “must”, “should not” and “insist” type letters. The message was not “you have a problem and we can help”; the message was unequivocally “you have a problem and you are to blame”. The same message was given to the students in a meeting. Sheep and goats had been sorted, and they were the goats.

Julie was distraught. She had only just started sixth form, and she was struggling to negotiate the crowded classrooms and corridors of the school, after years of having to be taught in hospital, at home or in a separate unit. She was still ill, still heavily medicated, and still needing twelve hours sleep a night. She had done fairly well in Maths at previous levels, but she has no confidence at all. With her time severely curtailed by her need for sleep, the extra Maths classes ate into time needed for her other subjects, and it was impossible to see how she could meet these demands for extra homework. But without Maths at A level, she could say goodbye to her modest dreams of taking a technical degree.

I got in touch with the Maths teacher, and suggested that she give Julie a break. I explained the circumstances, and that testing Julie straight away was likely to give spurious results. But I was talking to a brick wall: it was obvious she had no real idea of the problems Julie had to overcome just to get to school at all. In the end, I told her that I would monitor Julie’s workload, and if there was no time to do the extra tuition or homework they were demanding, then I would instruct Julie to skip them. I told her that when she retested Julie it would have to be with extra conditions – with Julie supervised in a private room and given time for breaks – to cope with problems of concentration. And I told her that if she tried to take Julie off the A level course then she would have to fight me first. I have enough Maths of my own to know that any school should be able to get Julie through that exam reasonably well.

Julie was retested at the end of half term – in the revised conditions – and passed. Actually, not so much passed, as thrashed it: she got 100%. She no longer has to go to extra lessons or do extra homework or attend any more unpleasant meetings to be berated for poor performance. She was never in need of remedial Maths classes, she just needed someone to put more thought into assessing the performance of a student in her circumstances. She was really a sheep, and always a sheep. But in my view she was always really Julie, and nobody is a sheep or a goat.

Now we have a new problem; now she has been reclassified as a sheep, and a prize sheep, there is pressure on Julie to be “groomed” for Oxbridge application. This is no more appropriate than remedial classes were: she doesn’t need the stress of applying to Oxbridge. What she needs is someone to recognize what a fantastic achievement a place at any university will be – what a cause for celebration for a kid who has her illness – not a snobbish insistence that only a place at one unversity or another really “counts”.

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1. (Before starting the course) This subject is really easy, I’ll easily get an A in this subject.
2. (During the course) Exam? What exam?
3. (During class revision sessions) Yeah, yeah, this is really boring.
4. (One week before the exam) Oh shit, I have an exam in a week’s time.
5. (Trying to revise) Why don’t I understand any of this? I don’t remember learning any of this.
6. (After looking at a past paper) My life is over, I am going to be slaughtered.
7. (Reaching the bargaining phase) If I faked my own death they would probably give me a good grade posthumously.
8. (The night before the exam) I could work as a dustman. Surely you don’t need good grades to work as a dustman?
9. (In the exam, just after turning over the paper) Oh no, anything but that.
10. (Afterwards) Fantastic, I will never have to study that subject ever again. What do you mean resits?

(My son is sitting an English exam next week. We’re currently at stage 6.)

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I’m in the middle of one of those weeks which is like a really bad Italian opera. Not one of the great ones, but one of those flabby, cut-and-paste jobs that were just trying to make a fast buck. There is too much high emotion, raised voices and an unlikely plot.

Life with teenagers is not always easy. Life with two highly strung teenagers, both with mental health issues, can really suck. Week four of the school term, the nights are drawing in, homework is piling up, and there is a sudden flurry of assessments. Both kids, in their different ways, buckle under the strain. There are lots of tears, a lot of catastrophising and an overdose is taken (yet again).

I calm, coach, encourage and insist. I drive, cook and shop. I negotiate with school. I phone psychiatrists and therapists. As an after thought, I sometimes work. I don’t sleep, laugh or relax as much as usual.

I think, Why are my kids like this? What did I do wrong? What could I do differently?

I am sorry I had to miss a key meeting at work, sorry I forgot to go to the nurse for my blood test, sorry I failed to return my neighbour’s call, sorry there was nothing in the house to eat one evening. But it was all I could do to survive this week.

But hey, I wrote my blog post: and this weekend I shall bake some bread.

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May is the cruellest month. The sun is shining, the woods are in leaf, the birds are singing. And everyone between the ages of 13 and 23 seems to be bent over their books studying for exams.

Of all the initiation rites into adulthood used by human societies, our prolonged periods of studying and examinations seem unusual. Unlike killing a lion, climbing a mountain, or drinking large quantities of the local brew, our exams are not just opportunities that you either pass or fail. They are graded: our children are set against one another. They are sorted into sheep or goats, and those that do very well are rewarded with a great deal of praise.

Are our exams useful? Surely they must be: parents clamour to get their children into schools that get good exam results, and governments agonize over exams. Here in the UK there have been repeated public arguments about our exam system; it is in a permanent state of being overhauled.

But it is all too easy to become obsessed with exam grades – they are almost too easily recorded, monitored and traded. These strings of letters are lazy substitutes for accurately assessing the real abilities and value of young human beings, the quality of a teacher, or the success of a school. My children’s teachers drum it into them that their future depends upon these exams. Some of my children’s teachers never speak to me about my children without pulling up their predicted grades on the computer first: while I am talking to them about my child, they speak only about the grades. The child has become that string of letters. Sometimes those letters are translated into real emotions: my daughter prompts a smile – she is always predicted good results – my son a scowl – his results are poor.

I speak as someone for whom exams were very useful in their day. I was good at them, they opened doors for me, they helped me escape from the limitations of the world I was raised in. But they were artificial gates to the adult world; they did not, in themselves, give me much of lasting value. Over time I have found that the things that have been most valuable were things that cannot be studied or examined. I have found, for example, that understanding how people work, and how to be kind, have been much more useful in my daily business than an ability to analyse the language of Shakespeare in a 60 minute essay.

At their worst, the exams damage the mental health of some youngsters. My son is coping badly with exams. They emphasize his weaknesses, and his teachers are convinced that he is lazy or uncooperative, when he is actually desperate. He feels he is a failure before he has even started life, and he is beginning to give up. It is in vain that I try to explain to him that, even if he failed all of these exams, his life would go on – and in fact, would probably work out as he wants, given time.

Every time a teacher says a child “must” do something, perhaps someone else should be asking why.

My son is so worried about his exams next month that he’s making himself really ill.  It’s awful to have to watch.  I’ve already written about being worried about the drop in his appetite.  Of course as a parent, you want to avoid your children suffering – you look after them, you try to give them what you think is good advice, you fuss, nag, shout or praise depending on your personal style.  But against depression, what can you do?  Perhaps some parents – with some children – can intervene and stop the process, but I suspect nature is against the rest of us.  (This doesn’t make it any easier to accept.)

ImageMy son has Asperger’s, and his thinking can be rigid at times.  I encourage him to talk to me about his worries and I listen to what he says. I know enough about CBT to spot some of the classic thinking traps, but usually I try to keep quiet. Just occasionally I can’t stop myself and I ever so gently imply that there is an alternative way to think about something – an alternative that would be less painful, less guilt-ridden, less brutal.  I am always roundly rebuffed.  He is going through a phase where it is so important to reject advice from parents, that he hardly listens to a word I say.  He has to reject it, he has to refute it (no matter how thin his arguments against), he has to stake his independence.  I can see the path out of his prison, but he won’t take it until he finds it for himself.

Isn’t this always the problem with supporting someone with depression?  You are sitting outside the prison with the key to the door in your hand, but they refuse to take it from you?

It seems all I can do is what I am doing: watching out for him in practical ways, making sure he gets to bed at a reasonable hour, cooking for him, nagging him to wear his coat when it rains.  I have arranged for him to see professionals for the depression, we take him to his appointments, I try to give him space to talk if he wants.  I talk to the school, trying to explain why this is not just normal reluctance to do exams, but something more dangerous.  I try to make sure he doesn’t become isolated in the family, I encourage him to come on family outings (he doesn’t usually want to go), I make sure he sees his friends.

There’s a fair chance he won’t even be able to take these exams – he’s been unable to take several in the past.  There are serious problems building up for him in the future if he carries on skipping them.  And in the meantime, his mood is getting bleaker, and more savage with every day that passes.  But all I can do it seems is watch and support him.

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