I’m writing this post whilst invigilating a GCSE Maths exam* and, like most of the people in the room with me, wondering how in the world I ended up here.
First, let me set the scene, for those of you who enjoy a good horror story. My morning starts as well as Friday mornings ever do, though a series of personal, structural and Palaeontologist-related chaoses soon knock me off schedule. Setting up the exam room is so stressful that my Fitbit thinks I’ve done 20 minutes running on the spot, when I’ve actually just been working through what I should and shouldn’t display on the walls, the door, the desks. Still, at least that makes up for the following hour and a half, when I can do nothing but walk up and down the very short lines between very bored students. The kids themselves (and they are all kids in my room) fit every cliché in the book. We have the rebel, with spiky hair and a dragon ring. We have the one who showed up without a pen, and the two who showed up to the wrong room. We have the boy with Hugh Grant-esque floppy hair (when did that become a thing again?!) and the girl with a crop top and nails that will make the calculator paper a challenge, to say the least. There is a lad at the back (impressive, given they have no choice where they sit) who puts his hood up in the first 15 minutes and comes pretty close to falling asleep, and a guy in one corner who is enjoying the paper so much that he spends a good chunk of time picking blue tack off the walls. And, of course, there is me, whose whole outfit is based solely around shoes that don’t clomp and earrings that don’t jangle.
Back to my question: why am I here? One answer to that is perfectly literal. I’m here because six years of working in education have still not trained me out of volunteering to help when I know help is needed, and so I offered to step in when we simply did not have enough bodies to put in rooms to make sure the exams happened as they needed to. That answer needs more detail, though, as it is not a situation unique to us; you could say I am here because of decisions made by a variety of government departments, who have orchestrated years of ongoing cuts to Further Education, allowed trained invigilators to find other things to do during two years with no formal GCSE exams, and failed to alleviate an ongoing crisis in teenage (and adult) mental health. Students of all ages are more likely to need separate rooms, more likely to go into crisis on the morning of the exams, more likely to drop out altogether under the pressure they are currently under than ever before, which has forced schools and colleges across the country to rope in teaching staff to ensure the exams can still take place.
But why am I here is bigger even than that. The real reason I am here is because of the need to ensure that everyone going through education in this country, at some point in their lives, squeezes through this one narrow gateway. The expectation, of course, is that you go through this gate when it does not feel so much like a prison; it’s just one more exam in a month of pressure, nothing to see here, carry on through. And those who pass through comfortably, who achieve that magical 4 and move on, are then able to progress with the rest of their lives with no idea what horrors they have escaped. But what of the rest of them? What of the hundreds of kids in every town across the country who do not pass their Maths and English first time round?
Don’t get me wrong: I am passionate about levelling up and ensuring that everyone has the skills to do a job they love. If I had a slightly less laissez-faire attitude towards my hair becoming as grey as the clouds over me as I write this, I’m sure I would be very concerned if my stylist did not understand ratios and the passage of hours. If a care assistant is visiting a friend, I would want them to be able to both read and understand the instructions left for them, and to adapt those instructions if needed for the person stepping into their place next. The construction workers building new homes on the corner really need to understand volume, area and converting measurements. I teach all these things in my classroom, and I will sermonise until the cows come home about why everyone, everyone, in this country deserves access to free Maths and English classes to ensure that they can develop these skills if they do not yet have them, whatever current government guidelines on residency may want you to believe.
But GCSE Maths is not the only way to measure how confidently someone can use numbers; and GCSE English is not the only way to judge reading. They are not the only ways to do this; they are just the easiest. Exams feel impartial; and we have all been conditioned to believe that partiality is bad. The Right might argue that exams are necessary because teachers cannot be trusted not to inflate their students’ grades; because exams were what they had In My Day and it never harmed anyone then; to make life skills commodities that can be weighed and measured and found wanting. The Left might feel that exams are necessary because they are anonymous, and so they cannot be subject to unconscious bias (as though anyone who has worked in adult education for longer than 6 months can’t immediately tell which land mass a student grew up on based solely on the style of their handwriting). Whichever side you argue from, you arrive at the point that exams are the only way to ensure that education is fair and we are all playing by, and judged by, the same rules.
This point, though, says that knowledge is worth something only if it is judged; that skills are worthy only if they meet assessable criteria. This is the same system that says that the worth of a person is the same as the salary they earn; that those who do not work for money do not work at all; that if we are not always consuming, and growing, and progressing, and doing more and more, and using more and more; if we are not doing these things, then we are failing.
What am I doing here? What are we all doing here? How have we ended up allowing ourselves to be locked into boxes that limit our potential and our creativity and our ability to be ourselves, and added insult to injury by insisting this is the only way to be fair?
*By which I mean that I am composing this in my head whilst invigilating a Maths exam, of course. Whilst actually in the room, the rules are very clear: you are allowed to walk up and down and look over the shoulders and into the palms of each student to ensure that they have not unconsciously got their phone out mid-exam; you can breathe if you must, whilst making every effort to hold in the sighs if you see a wrong answer on the page in front of you; but you can do nothing, absolutely nothing, to distract yourself from Your Purpose during the exam itself. In my case, I couldn’t even stare out of the window (and neither could the candidates). There wasn’t one. Now that is forward planning on the part of the building designers, don’t you think?