One of the major frustrations in education over the last eighteen months has been the way in which exams and assessments have come to dominate our discussions – ironic given GCSEs and A-Level exams were reported to have been “cancelled” due to the pandemic. Terminal exams (as we knew them) may not have taken place but, as long as the qualifications remained, assessment – and therefore tests, mock exams, high-pressure moments – continued.
For students in Years 11, 12 and 13, the last two ‘exam seasons’ have been tough. Indeed, the very concept of an exam ‘season’ now feels old hat: what was once a relatively brief moment in the spot-light at the end of the academic year (the pain off-set by the onset of summer), became a period of prolonged and intense scrutiny. Of course, this was never the intention, but it was the perception – and therefore the lived experience – for many students.
Back in the day, I always enjoyed exams. I relished the chance to pit my wits against the questions; I delighted in finding creative ways to flex what knowledge I had. Jumping through hoops could be fun, I discovered, if you knew how to play the game. But we have been playing a diffident game this time around, and this has been a very different experience. More an endurance test than an agility test; more so than ever a marathon, not a sprint.
But, as I have said to students many times, exams ultimately make up such a small part of our life, and even our school, experience. I hope that, once the benefit of hindsight kicks in, our students will appreciate that what they have learnt about themselves through the pandemic (and all the life lessons they have learnt through school) will have more lasting significance than an exam grade.
In the meantime, rather than waving goodbye prematurely, we were determined to keep Year 11 and Year 13 in school, post-exams, so that we could pack the last two weeks full of all the fun stuff. The current programme of events for Year 11 and Year 13 is a cornucopia of delights: mocktail making with Mr Sherwood, travel tips with Ms Pearson and Mr Bashford (something tells me teachers may be sick of exams too), a session on relationships with Mrs Dowglass, walks on the Downs, trips to Thorpe Park, virtual work experience, university bridging seminars… just some of the enrichment activities on offer.
For students in Years 7 to 10 and 12, who are facing internal assessments over the next couple of weeks, the same will apply. Yes, there are tests, but then there are activity weeks, trips to Boughrood, sports days. As I said in assembly on Monday, the way in which our students approach these activities will say more about them than the grade that appears on their end-of-year report card; and the friendships, the relationships they forge, will count for so much more. Let the memory-making commence!
A letter arrived in the post this week. It was from a group of friends who started their journey at Brighton & Hove High in 1949. They had seen the story about Betty Morris’s 100th birthday and it had prompted them to send two letters to the school – one to be forwarded to Betty, who had been their English teacher 70 years ago, and one addressed to me.
Apart from one light-hearted reference to “Caesar’s Gallic War and other torments”, the letter contains no reference to school work, and certainly no reference to exams. What is being celebrated in the letter are all the important aspects of school life: the friends, the teachers, the shared experience.
In it, the writer expresses affection for her former school (“we loved our school days and realise now what a wonderful education we had”) and delights in recalling teachers in the black-and-white photo that accompanied the article (“Would that be Miss Bingham (PE) on the far left? The unforgettable and redoubtable Miss Sinclair (Geography) in the centre?”).
The letter is all about the people – and how remarkable that it was written on behalf of three others: “friends from our first day and still together now”.