Exam Season Blues: Why 45 Minutes is Not Enough

Nothing beats the stress and tension of exam season if you work in a secondary school.   For students, exam season is a wake-up call, one of the first moments that they realise there are some situations where only their own brain and effort will get them through.  For teachers, exam season is the culmination of months of hard work.  The children’s futures, the school’s reputation, the views of parents, all of these things prey on the mind of the diligent teacher.

There is a reason why exam nightmares are common, even after you leave school.  Who hasn’t woken of a morning, felt a creeping remnant of humiliation stemming from a dream in which they turned up to an exam naked and unprepared?

Soon, my anxious Year 11 students will file into the building from their ‘study leave’ and fall silent as the exam regulations are read to them.  Some will be unconsciously twisting bits of paper, nerves betrayed by the physical act of shredding their exam timetable or the last few revision notes they made.  Some will be steely-eyed, determined; others merely hoping they make it to the end of the exam having written something, anything that might do them justice.

I look at them as individuals.  It saddens me that so much of their future is determined by exams that don’t necessarily reveal the extent of their intelligence.  Watching Sir Keith Robinson’s fantastic RSA lecture, ‘Changing Paradigms’, made me wonder whether testing our students in the way we do enables them to demonstrate their true potential.  The concept of uniform assessment, influenced by a historical shift towards standardisation for the purposes of national productivity, does not allow for a true reflection of a child’s abilities, particularly when that child falls outside of the ‘norm’.

Take the English Literature exams, recently earmarked for reform after being designated ‘soft’.  Fears that the exam has become too easy means that it will be subject to yet another change, having already been overhauled by the exam boards in 2010.  However exams are viewed by policy advisers, Education Secretaries, the press and the public, only an English teacher can explain that for some students, English Literature exams in any format are extremely difficult.  Only an English teacher, someone who sits with children every day to help them learn the core skills of inference and deduction, analysis, evaluation and synthesis, can explain how an English Literature exam may be problematic in any format for students who come into secondary education with low reading ages.  It is these students who struggle to keep up with the demands of courses that expect them to be able to make complex and adult judgements when the mere act of reading the text can cause embarrassment and frustration.

While most schools’ titanic efforts in raising reading ages are often successful, consider what a child has to do in the current English Literature exam.  Firstly, have an acute understanding of 15 poems, their language devices, structural features and implied meanings.  The criteria for the exam suggests that the top grades can only be achieved if a conceptual response is created.  It is not enough to display knowledge about the poems, they need to conceptualise their response to take into consideration an author’s possible intentions.  Secondly, they respond to an Unseen Poem – a text they have never seen before.  To many, this may not seem impossible.  One sample test paper had the word ‘waltz’ in it.  For inner city London students, despite efforts to increase cultural capital, many will not be familiar with the intricacies of a Bavarian dance possibly dating from the 1750s.  Michael Rosen is particularly lucid on the cultural bias of exam papers when he speaks about SATs papers being designed under the assumption that every child has parents who speak to them about botany and geology, take them to museums and expose them to music beyond that of the current chart.  If a vital key word in a poem relies heavily on the assumption of student’s background, surely we are just perpetuating social mobility issues?

Students are also asked to write about a novel and a play.  Answering a question about whether Inspector Goole is a mouthpiece for J.B Priestley’s socialist message seems straightforward.  As does examining an extract from ‘Of Mice and Men’ for close language details.  As does then relating the content of the extract to the whole novel and then finally, when hands are tired and minds are fraught, linking all of this to what is shown about America in the 1930s.

The issues lies in the fact that each question is given a time allocation of 45 minutes – in the case of Unseen Poetry, a mere 30 mins.  I know that my students understand, with a depth of detail, the finer points of a text, however, can they ever fully show their appreciation in 45 minutes?  How many English teachers have sat at their desks knowing that a child is incredibly bright and articulate, either verbally, or with longer stretches of time to construct an argument, and known that 45 minutes will not ever reveal the real extent of their skill?  A former student of mine was one of the most articulate students I had ever taught – someone, in fact, with huge cultural capital.  However, high-functioning Asperger’s and a slow writing speed meant that he did not really have the chance to shine.

This is not an argument for the dumbing down of English Literature exams, it is an argument for a real and lengthy consideration of the purpose of assessment and who is best qualified to conduct it.  If we expect our students to sit the same assessments, in the same length of time, yes, we do achieve a standardised environment in which students can be measured against their peers.  Whether this is a fair assessment system is questionable.  Our children are not standardised units.  Give them the freedom to demonstrate their abilities, and, as usual, they might surprise us.



  1. Brussel Sprout

    While I agree that 45 minutes is not enough and I hate the sausage factory aspect of mass exams, I am not convinced by what I’m going to call the ‘waltz’ argument. Ahem, these are kids who are probably watching Strictly Come Dancing or have mums and dads who are watching…you aren’t giving students credit for what they do know and what they are capable of finding out. And finding things out has never been easier thanks to the Interwebs. The point I’m trying to make here is that good students, of any background, will have the initiative to work out what a waltz is. We can’t go around saying, oooo poor little diadems, s/he comes from this kind of background therefore s/he can’t be expected to do well – if we go down that route, we end up in our current situation of sucking our teeth at students perfectly capable of going to UCL/Oxbridge/Russell Group universities and saying “mmmm, getting a bit big for our boots, aren’t we”…

    It doesn’t matter what environment we teach in, we can, if we are good teachers, provide context, cultural capital and yes, the ability to conceptualize. The point that Robinson makes is not that stuff is too complex or difficult to distill into 45 minutes, but that we are massively underestimating what people are capable of. The waltz argument is irrelevant. What is relevant is that we have no way of testing what really is relevant, namely the creativity and ingenuity of any individual.

    Students are perfectly capable of learning anything they want to learn – it is our increasingly difficult to job to persuade them that the canon of knowledge tested by GCSE/A level is worth learning for its own sake – to give them the desire, ambition and self-belief to make that canon accessible to them. That job is made difficult not by what we put on the syllabus, but by the lack of trust in us professionals to deliver any syllabus, and by our own sense of defeat and acceptance that we are as incompetent a profession as Gove and Charles Clarke and Ruth Kelly have implied.

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