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Mouth to mouth

What do you do when it all goes wrong? Gary Shawford recalls being put on the spot in a GCSE oral exam.

I remember it as if it were yesterday. In 1994, I was teaching a GCSE German class. The month of May came around, and I became more and more obsessed with making sure that nothing went wrong. In particular, I had to remember to prepare the "B" materials for the German exam, rather than the "A" materials, because the tests were to take place in the afternoon. All went swimmingly. The eight German candidates went into the "holding room" and the first seven performed most pleasingly. The role-plays turned out to be fair and the conversation flowed well. The nightmare scenario - that the tape recorder might not work, thus failing to record a good performance - did not occur. Something else, however, did.

Candidate number eight appeared a little concerned and pointed to the task card. "Mr Shawford," he said, "Are you sure this is right?" I looked at it. "Speaking Test ", it read. "Of course it's right, Robert," I said. "Why shouldn't it be?" "Well, it's just that it says 'Wednesday, May 16th', and today's Tuesday May 15th."

My blood ran cold.

"Oh, that!" I said. "Don't worry about that."

Feigning a placid exterior despite inner turmoil, I managed to lead Robert through a rather good performance of his oral. But he was still worried.

"Does this mean that all tomorrow morning's candidates will have the same exam as I did?" he enquired.

His unspoken thought was clearly the same as mine: what was to stop him ringing up all his mates and telling them what was in the exam? What on earth was I to do? And how could it possibly have happened?

The answer soon revealed itself. The German orals had actually started that afternoon with Speaking Test "A" and not, as I had assumed, that morning. All my smug attention to making sure I did Test "B" and not Test "A" had been totally misguided. What was I to do? It was essential for Test B to be carried out the next morning, because all over the country it would be carried out next morning.

Shelving thoughts of my pupils' devastation, my colleagues' embarrassment, my own public humiliation, press headlines and sacking, knowing that I would never work again, I confessed - to my head of department, the deputy head and the headteacher. All offered total understanding, total forgiveness, total support. Advice came down the line from the exam board to contact all the parents and ensure that no pupil would contact their friends taking the exam the following morning. Tracking down the parents was hugely tiring - and hugely embarrassing - but luckily, all the candidates were on study leave so it was not so difficult to ensure none of them spoke to each other. In short, we got away with it.

Language teachers do get emotionally involved with their students' need for success. Some little thing can throw the most able on the day, maybe depriving them of the cherished A*. You have to steer them so carefully through the oral minefield and if anything goes wrong, you feel guilty. And this wasn't just "the slightest thing".

That was all just a ghastly mistake, but I now know that there are teachers who are so keen for their students to do well that they are prepared to bend the rules. Last week, a pupil from a nearby school blandly told me that, in his oral, his teacher had given him a 10-minute dry run before switching on the tape recorder.

"But that's illegal!" I protested.

"Oh, please don't tell anyone," begged my pupil, "I'd have to re-do the exam."

Not long ago, I was chatting to a colleague at a party. His tongue loosened by alcohol, he admitted to having regularly, over the years, re-wound the tape and started again if a candidate had put in a below-par performance. And only last year, a teacher from another local school was suspended after it emerged that she had told her candidates the contents of the role-plays days before the exam. Just for once, honesty had ruled and a pupil had told her father what had gone on.

So farewell, then, GCSE oral in its current form. Only one more year to go. But you can bet your life I'm not going to let my concentration slip, even for a moment!

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