Prince Harry’s Art

DT Column:

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.

44 thoughts on “Prince Harry’s Art”

  1. Thanks very much Boris for that wonderful insight, it seems very true to me as a student. Thankfully in my A Levels last year I was at luck since I chose subjects with minimal or no coursework. I also feel that there is a greater sense of achievement with exams, which can be clearly mirrored with the real world. Also, congrats on your personally excellent election result!

  2. Boris: at last someone who has my, hitherto seen as anachronistic, view on the relationship between exams and real life. Course work; on a scale of value for life; is way down in the lower echelons, since it might , as is now so glaringly obvious, have been done by someone else. When it comes down to the real life issues, every day is a test of ones ability to survive in the rat race. How right were those American Presidential words : if you can’t stand the heat: get out of the kitchen.

  3. I don’t see the value of coursework, at this point rate the work done by the students during the year if a blunt exam is hard for those that get nervous, even if I liked to pit myself against teachers. Before my uni exams (in Italy nearly all oral) I crammed like mad, and this taught me how to survive at work, I can do incredible amounts before a deadline… The good old days of “a month before an exam, heaps of time; three weeks, better start studying; two weeks, mmm I’m behind on my schedule; one week, argh!” But I got through, and with most of my sanity intact.

  4. Good point Vanessa

    Drink a cup of strong coffee on empty stomach to rev up the system + shake like a leaf on entry to exam room = great results

  5. buying papers over the internet? shows they are computer literate and can use their initiative. 🙂

  6. Couldn’t agree more. Life is indeed one hard exam after the other and the only way to get through it is tackle it head on.Furthermore I always found a sense of release after each exam was finished , bit of a high….until the next one that is.

  7. I cannot entirely agree with Boris’s view that exams are closer to real life than course work. Surely in work and life we need to be able to sprint under pressure for short periods of time as well as being able to jog distances for the long haul.

    Of course measuring academic/vocational achievement is another matter entirely. Having experienced an all exam framework as an undergraduate and an exam and course work mix as a postgraduate I feel there is something in a bit of both but the emphahsis IMO is fat too much on course work now.

  8. The inference seems to be that coursework always benefits the student, that it is a means by which slow students are better able to succeed. Whilst this may be true in some cases, it is not the whole story. You forget favouritism can work both ways. Coursework, because it is entirely at the discretion of an examiner which is usually a resident tutor, can be used to mark down a student. There is no appeal if the student passes and a pass mark is 40%. This mark as a whole of the students degree course can radically and irrevocably alter the degree awarded. Such cases have been known especially when the student concerned has spurned the advances of the tutor marking the work!
    In life you declare the degree you gained, you cannot pedal the circumstances to everyone and say “but look, if you just look at the exam marks you’ll see they are above 70% and in my core subject I got the best mark in the history of the course and my project got over 70!” No-one is in the least interested.
    As for taking ‘hard’ subjects at A level I would say interesting subjects rather than ‘hard’ for, correct me if I’m wrong Boris, if you go to Balliol college or Ian Hislops (Magdelene?) you could get a degree in basket weaving and an employer would still have an orgasm over it. Mind you, basket weaving is still more difficult than art or social sciences and could lead to useful employment – it’s a thought!

  9. Here’s one to cheer you up Boris- in Advanced Higher Computing (the actual Scottish equivalent of A-Level) coursework is 50% of the final grade- and since its programming a lot of it is based on tutorials and support sites anyway!

  10. Very good, very good Boris – Let’s be honest: Most of us one day in our lives cheat but in the crossroads of our lives even cheating, it’s hard to get to the top…In the end it’s just an illusion…

  11. “an illusion”?
    An impertinent question Boris: have you ever found a woman attractive that DIDN’T go to Oxford? (I don’t count, I went on a day-trip once)What about asking George Osborne or DOCTOR Liam Fox if they would ever date anyone that was socially poor? No money, no influence, no power, no rich parents, no TV career, no single in the charts, just a nice girl, on income support say! Oh yes, freedom and equality for all.

    However fleeting getting to the top is, it is no illusion when you’re there. When you are asked to leave, the hurt is no illusion either. It doesn’t seem to matter to some how you get there – ask Lord Archer! And if you look at Prescott, who seems to fancy himself a great deal, having influence and power over our lives is no illusion.

  12. Most coursework is, as far as i can see, either nicked of the interweb or completed by parents. Result: The kids know nothing.

    I blame the Conservatives! ;o)

    It’s just another part of the “dumbing down” that Government has been so keen on for the last 20 years. Keep the people stupid (well, ill-educated at least) and they don’t question dodgey invasions on the back of spurious intelligence reports, etc.

    I saw an “A” level physics paper last year. I could answer every single question. My “O” level was harder! If pupils can’t pass the modern exams, the whole system has failed completely.

  13. Oh no! Comrade Psimon – you can’t possibly pointblank blame the Conservatives … I can assure you we’re not for dumbing down

    Anything but dumbing down to the lowest common denominator

  14. Coursework is a joke ; at best people get “help” ; at worst it’s written for them. The Harry saga would not surprise most teachers.

    It’s a deliberate fraud perpetuated by the Govt, LEA, Pupils, Management and some teachers, none of whom have anything to gain from exposing or stopping it.

    What amazes me is anyone is stupid enough to accept that A-C passes have doubled in recent years, go up every year, and some people really believe this is an accurate reflection of skills.

  15. Melissa, my wink ;o) should have given me away on that one! I was merely blaming them for GCSE’s! —>;o)<—

    Boris looking wonderfully ruffled on Question Time…must go!

  16. whoo hooo…. Boris has just been asked the eternal question about him standing for Tory leader and have never seen him fluster and splutter so much, given his body language and failure to answer the question directly I would have to say that it might just be an definite option. What do you say Melissa ? might we be right?

  17. I think this is one of those tricky issues, to be honest. In theory, the arguments that Boris (and many others) put forward are spot on, but in practice, they don’t work quite as intended.

    Similarly, arguments that exams have “dumbed down” are strictly speaking perhaps correct, but influences and the structure of society has changed, computers are used a hell of a lot more (and in different ways), and so different abilities – and, indeed, levels of those abilities – are required for a completly new and reformed range of tasks in life.

    Oh, and I can safely say I don’t even KNOW where to get essays off the Internet, let alone have ever done so! Cheating is for Labour supporters. Good training for postal voting. 😉

  18. Winning by any means possible is surely the basis of natural selection. Coursework is there to be exploited – whether it should be scrapped depends on whether you view that as more important than grades or not.

  19. This is the kind of subject where all the marxists come out and claim that we all sould study something that leads to employment. Bugger ‘um we need knollege for knollege sake just for the hell of it. Then kick the nay-sayer between the legs, and go back to reading french literature, german philosophy. Thought should not be surpressed.

  20. why oh why alas – do we have to put up with pedents like William More. Boris may not have a hyphen, dear little bill, but he’s got a better hair cut then you any day:)

  21. > We are very keen to maintain high standards

    No argument there, Melissa! I stand corrected (that’s what comes of relying on the 1933 Shorter OED) but at least Nick can now spell ‘pedant’!

  22. Thanks for your generous comment William

    ~ mustn’t be too hasty … but is it perhaps time to invest in a new OED?

    Nick has a great heart (not to say the liveliest of imaginations esp when it comes to blue cheerleading ideas)- it’s just that, like many, the spellcheck isn’t a high priority probably (we wholeheartedly forgive him) – I think comrade Macarnie would agree, being a master of beautiful English

  23. You all seem to have picked my point up in a fine manor. I have never thought that after all these years working on this language that there is a construction known as standard spelling. Language is far more a liquid object then the one that is taught in our skools ( that spelling comes from Molesworth.) I think that now I may well be the pedant ( see i can spell it if I want to!!!)

  24. Molesworth is alive and kicking in the Plymouth Blog. ( I shouldn’t think that B’s school allowed such a hairdo as Molesworth’s.)
    Even the section with the so called correct spelling leaves something to be desired: liquid language ? As liquid as raw molasses in February.Check it out: figures for fingers Etc.

  25. Good one Nick, LOL, but Vanity Fair (I think) shows young Boris to be far prettier – very prince charming! I don’t remember the fashions of the day but in the picture the magazine chose I think he was wearing his wife.

  26. “The creative person wants to be a know-it-all. He wants to know about all kinds of things: ancient history, nineteenth-century mathematics, current manufacturing techniques, flower arranging, and hog futures. Because he never knows when these ideas might come together to form a new idea. It may happen six minutes later or six months, or six years down the road. But he has faith that it will happen.”
    – Carl Ally

    As they say Art is science made clear; but the clarity has a high price attached to the six minutes – ach six decades – of sting called humanity …

  27. ‘Check it out: figures for fingers Etc.’

    Macrnie: I will tattoo on my head in mirror letters: ‘ I must copy edit more closely.’ 🙂
    So every morning when I jump from the pit I can take better note of it.

    Would you allow me to argue that figures = digits = fingers? There is a logic going on here!

  28. “The creative person wants to be a know-it-all. He wants to know about all kinds of things: ancient history, nineteenth-century mathematics, current manufacturing techniques, flower arranging, and hog futures. Because he never knows when these ideas might come together to form a new idea. It may happen six minutes later or six months, or six years down the road. But he has faith that it will happen.”
    – Carl Ally

    Jozef – Although I’ve not heard of Carl Ally this does very much sound like Claude Levi-Strauss’s ‘Brocolage.’

  29. Nick : excellent logical thought train in Re. digits/fingers. Power to your elbow , me old Jagger. Does Jagoes still stand?

  30. On the basis of Boris’s argument, if all coursework was abandoned and therefore the number of passes fell, would the Tories refrain from jeering because it was a sign that a “better” system had been introduced ?

    Nope, thought not.

  31. STUDENT HERE: Currently in the relentless grip of AS levels.

    I used to hate coursework – at GCSE written coursework seemed pointless, it didn’t test anything and was worth so little of the final grade that it wasted term-time.

    But as an English student with slow handwriting, the timed exams are a mad rush to get as much down as is physically possible, and in my opinion tests how fast you can express understanding more than how well you can. I was glad my coursework was worth so much because quite simply I could write it properly and actually demonstrate my ability.

    It annoys me that poliicians, journalists and the adult world in general condemn aspects of an exam system they have never actually experienced in its current form. Yes the coursework system has flaws, but so does democracy. Some subjects need coursework to be representative.

    PS. The other day some high-ranking journalists sporting various Oxbridge degrees in history, literature etc. did not have a clue what an SI unit was. Clearly they didn’t bother with GCSE level physics then.

  32. “Clearly they didn’t bother with GCSE level physics then.”

    maybe they didn’t have to – as progeny from the incestuous world of elite journalism their place in the world was assured.

    Looking at some of their efforts, I suspect that if they spell thier name correctly it is hailed as a triumph, and incorrectly, as expressionism.

  33. Despite being a big fan of your writing, Boris, I can’t say the same for all your policies.
    _ great stuff for G2 on the car testing BTW.
    You gloss over the issue of sexism but I have to tell you I was very glad of coursework.
    Like my husband, I’m a journalist.
    I would always get my coursework in with at least a day to spare (my adrenaline started running the minute the deadline was pronounced)and have continued this into my professional life.
    My husband cannot get anything done until his editor is clambering down the phone lines to yell louder in his ear about late copy.
    I prefer my way – I preferred coursework.
    He wishes he could organise his time better but feels incapable. He preferred exams – then again he does have a photographic memory.

  34. Great article Boris. I was strangely touched, it being 2.41am, approximately 10 hours and 19 mins before I have the first of two exams. These are my end of first year exams at university (Leeds if you’re wondering) where I am studying Classical Civilisation. The pass mark for these are 40%, of which coursework takes up to 60% of the total mark. In other words had I done superbly in my coursework I would merely need to walk in, write my name correctly at the top of the page and I would still pass. As these exams don’t count towards my final degree and I need to have scarcely even browsed any Classical texts to pass them I feel an utter apathy and lack of motivation. This is not what I went to uni for, albeit I expect next year will be much harder. Finally then I will have something to get my teeth into. The Iliad, Aeneid, Theocritus and Aristotle. Quite where they expected my motivation to come from this year is something I have yet to discover.

    Love the part about coffee, digestives, a crib sheet and a mad dash to the exam hall. That is one of my most vivid memories of GCSE and A level. It is also becoming a pretty large part of my current exams too. Still, the night-before routine got me this far.

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