life isn’t like coursework … It’s one essay crisis after another
Exams work because they’re scary
Well I don’t know about you but I like Prince Harry’s aboriginal crocodiles. Speaking with the authority of a former shadow minister for the arts, I would say that they are jolly colourful. And, um, bold. And who cares if – as is now suggested – he did not paint every detail of the little Abo critters himself? Harry, old chum, we have all been there.
I, too, have endured the torpor and tedium of art A-level coursework and, in my case, it wasn’t crocodiles. It was a lobster. It was a very hot summer term, and candidates for art A-level were invited to compose and draw a still-life.
When I looked at the rubric, my heart sank. We seemed to have about three weeks to complete the thing. Three weeks! How on Earth could we spend so long on a drawing?
So I am afraid I rather let things slide in that long sultry 17-year-old summer. I parked the lobster somewhere in the drawing schools, and then added a shoe and an onion, in the hope of making my composition more interesting.
The whole thing still filled me with such tedium that the lobster decayed, emitting appalling vapours. I had to dispose of the crustacean, and then draw it from memory. I think I passed, but I remember noting what a farce the whole thing was; how difficult it was to work up the same kind of panache for the marathon exercise as for when you have to polish off a drawing in one hour flat.
And I remember thinking, of course, how simple it would have been for someone else to have done it for me. That is just one of my objections to the modern plague of coursework, which has now spread out from art all over the curriculum, and which accounts for between 20 and 30 per cent of all exam marks.
More pupils than ever are now cheating at exams, and coursework gives them a prime opportunity. According to the Oxford and Cambridge and Royal Society of Arts Board (OCR), the number of penalties imposed on their pupils for cheating had risen by 12 per cent a year to 1,275, including 516 for those caught in collusion with teachers.
A recent BBC Radio 4 programme called Brains for Sale found that huge numbers of students were now just buying papers on the internet, and cutting and pasting the stuff into their own work. A certain Dorit Chomer said that she was selling 500 to 1,000 papers per week to British students, and estimated that 43 per cent of British students were now up to this kind of trick.
We seem, in other words, to be witnessing exam fraud on an imperial scale, in which everybody – teachers, parents, fellow pupils – can be snared in the exhausting web of collusion.
And why? The argument for coursework seems to be one from equity: that it is fairer to those who “aren’t so good at exams”. I have also heard some suggestion that coursework exams assist female pupils, while boys do better in the fierce eschatology of the final struggle.
But never mind; this is no time for sexism. As far as I can see we are all losing out to coursework – boys, girls, parents and employers. The whole point about the final exam, when you have to stuff yourself with coffee and digestive biscuits, and then run to the exam hall with your crib sheet bobbing before you – throwing it aside only as the exam hall is unlocked – is that it is like real life.
In fact, people’s jobs are becoming more and more like time-limited exams. We live in an economy increasingly dominated by the service sector, and everywhere you look people are required to cram, at the last minute, and then perform.
If you are a lawyer, you get up early to fill yourself to the gills with case law, and absorb details of someone’s private disaster that you will never need again. If you are a banker or a management consultant or a lobbyist, you will regularly throw all-nighters to produce the victorious presentation or bid or whatever it happens to be.
And if you are a politician, or a journalist, believe me, you find that you are asked endlessly to suck in and then expel information like some undersea coelenterate [n : radially symmetrical animals having saclike bodies with only one opening and tentacles with stinging structures; they occur in polyp and medusa forms]. In fact, the more you live like that, the more you find you need the panic of the deadline – the terrible moment when the invigilator shouts “Stop writing!” – to produce anything at all.
When I was a foreign correspondent reporting on the European Union, I found I could never think of my introductory sentence until I knew that my irascible New Zealand foreign editor was about to ring up and shout at me and then – pow – some words would pop into my head.
You need the fear to push up your brain’s RPM, and it is only when the flywheel is humming that you suddenly see the connections, and problems disappear; and there comes a magic moment when the clouds in your head all part at once, and you can see straight up to the stars.
And it is precisely when you are in that adrenalin-pumped state that things stick. I can still remember the details of the Battle of El-Alamein, because I had them on a piece of paper, with my heart thudding away, just as I was about to go into an exam at the age of 14.
We now have far too many exams all told, and far, far too many dull exams, in which there is no real time limit, and which are therefore about as mentally stimulating as watching a decomposing lobster.
If you can keep retaking the paper – as you can with much coursework – you lose your fear of failure, and the whole thing becomes increasingly unrealistic. Because life isn’t like coursework, baby. It’s one damn essay crisis after another.