When Lady Trumpington went on Desert Island Discs she admitted to Sue Lawley that she had never taken an examination in her life – except, presumably going on Desert Island Discs and being grilled by Sue Lawley about the whole of her life. She had never even taken a driving test. She did not seem particularly proud of the fact, or pleased at the recollection of her exam-free life, and no wonder; if she had never taken an exam, she did not know what she was missing. Because one of the golden rules about exams is that there sooner or later comes a time when we stop taking them, and we say to ourselves: 'I'll never have to take another exam!'
Rule Number 1:
The only point in taking exams is knowing you're going to stop one day.
The last exams I ever took were my Finals at Oxford, and I nearly didn't take those at all. After three years of studying French and German, I reckoned I had learnt all the university was going to teach me and my education was now over. What was the point of making the end of my final term so hideous with these terrible exams, which weren't going to teach me anything?
I even went to my tutor and told him I was seriously considering leaving Oxford the day before the exams started. He went various shades of indignant and reproachful, and put it to me that I would never forgive myself if I never had a degree; I would always look back with regret to the time when I might so easily have come out with initials after my name. Reluctantly I agreed. And I can reveal now that in the thirty years since I left, nobody has shown the slightest interest in whether I had a degree or not – no employer, no wife, no life insurance salesman, no travel agent.
What my tutor should have said to me was the whole point of an exam was to get me to work. I wouldn't have spent three years of my life buckling down fairly well if it hadn't been for the shadow of the sword hanging over me. The reason he didn't say that to me is that it would have seemed like the perfect justification to walk out of the exam room, leaving a note saying:' I have now done all the work, so I do not consider it necessary to do the exam as well.'
Rule Number 2:
The examiner does not want you to work during the exam; he wants you to work hard during the two previous years. Unfortunately, an exam is thought to be a good way of finding out if you have.
Personally, I do not think an exam is a very good way of finding out how much you have learnt; it's just a good way of finding out if you are good at exams. And if you're good at exams, you start getting certificates, documents, and crinkly bits of paper saying that you have satisfied the examiners or whatever.
When parents go through their possessions in later years, they sooner or later cry: 'Oh, look, here's my O' Level in Spanish, and my woodwork badge, and my Grade III for the flute!'
At this point the observant child says shrewdly:' But that's odd, you never play the flute, and you haven't nade anything out of wood in my lifetime, and when we were on holiday in Spain you spoke English the whole time…'
'Ahm' the parent tells the child,'it's all gone now. I never really had time for the flute, and my Spanish has gone rusty…'
Rule Number 3:
A exam result doesn't tell anyone what you know; it tells them what you used to know.
Well, sooner or later an intelligent child will put two and two together and think: 'I'm always being told how important education and exams and revision are, yet when I look at the people nearest me who I know were educated, ie parents, I find they have forgotten all they ever knew and it has been of no use to them. So how come I am expected to do the same?'
They will then notice that when they are being pestered by parents to do homework, the parent is insistent that the homework must be learnt, so vital is it, despite the fact that the parent has done without the knowledge for years. The conversation that normally takes place goes something like this:
'Have you done your history homework yet?'
'Well, do it!'
End of conversation. But perhaps this is what should be really said…
'Have you done your history yet?'
'Just starting, it's really interesting, did you know that in the Middle Ages during the Crusades, Western arms manufacturers sold arms to both sides, just like today?'
'No, I didn't.'
'Well, you really should, look I'll lend you my history book and you can have a look now. I'm young and I've got plenty of time, but you're old and if you don't learn history now you never will…'
Teenagers are commonly thought to be incapable of buckling down to memorising facts and long lists. This is rubbish of course. Almost any teenager you meet has a compendious knowledge of pop music, rock charts, sports stars, football results, innards of a radio, young Australian's biographies or whatever their particular interest is. You sometimes hear quiz shows on radio on which four-year olds are asked which record stayed longest in the charts in 1071 – and they know instantly. If they had turned that sort of scholarship to history, they'd be at Oxford now.
The fact of the matter is that techniques are acquired by one thing and one thing only: repetition. An English child learns French through endless repetition – and so does a French child, though it doesn't know it. A footballer gets good by going out day after day and shooting at goal or just playing, just like a pianist. If you enjoy it, it doesn't feel like work. If you don't enjoy it, it's boring and gets called revision. There is, as far as I know, no short cut, except through getting interested in your subject – which is something to do with having a good teacher, something over which you normally have no control – but these are two consolations you can comfort yourself with.
Rule Number 4:
If you do the exams now, you won't have to do them later.
A lot of people who ducked out of the exam cycle at school find themselves, quite to their surprise, doing them in their twenties – you often see hair-dressing salons, or pubs, or opticians, or off-licences, framed proudly on the wall, certificates saying that Mr Patel has satisfied the examiners in Grade One Newspaper Distributive Arts, or that Shareen has been declared a fully fledged florist executive by the Board of Associated Floral Arts Council, meaning she won't make a mess of the freeisias she's wrapping up for you.
Nobody ever knows what these qualifications amount to, and nobody ever dares ask; they a
re just certificates to look good.
Rule Number 4a.
Any exam result framed and hung on the wall is probably not worth the vellum it's written on.
The other consolation is that what you eventually do in life very often has absolutely nothing to do with your curriculum, and all to do with your hobbies. I knew a boy at school who spent his pocket money on knick-knacks in antique shops. He became editor of Connoisseur magazine. My brother spent all his time at school taking cameras and record players to bits – he became a highly skilled film cameraman.
I spent all my time at school with a friend running an underground alternative to the dreary old school magazine. We are both now professional journalists. There was a third boy who wrote nothing but got the magazine printed. He is now a flourishing independent publisher. I also knew a boy who ran Sunday bible classes in his spare time and later went to prison for fraud, but the rule is generally a good one.
Finally, and this I am afraid is not good news, there is no natural climax in exam taking. You go on and on and on. When I triumphantly finished taking my 'O' levels, our next year teacher said: 'O levels are kid's stuff – A levels are what exams are all about.' I finally forged through A levels and got to Oxford where the man said: 'You can forget all about A' levels and piddling stuff like that – we're on to man's work now.'
I knew then that if I ever got a degree, the PHd man would say to me, 'Well, let's get down to some real work, shall we?' and that is where I decided to stop.
To put it another way, or
Rule Number 5:
The only way to get rid of exams is to stop taking them.
The Family Magazine (Family Assurance Society) Spring/Summer 1991