A feeling of deja vu takes over the exam room

19th June 2009 at 01:00

"They seek him here, they seek him there, those Frenchies seek him everywhere", they said of the elusive Scarlet Pimpernel. Something similar happened recently when outraged Frenchie teachers in Britain wanted to hunt down the elusive, scarlet-faced nincompoop at Edexcel responsible for offering its candidates the 2008 GCSE instead of the 2009 edition.

I so hope at least one student saw fit to begin such deja vu proceedings with the old French adage: Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.

Poor Edexcel. It has been predictably lampooned for this latest administrative faux pas. I think it was a brilliant piece of exam setting. The surprise revival of the 2008 paper - used in most schools for the winter mock - richly rewarded the keenest, most committed students. Those who really followed the teacher's advice "to learn from the mistakes made in the mock" can never have imagined the fruits this would bring.

Besides, any French exam ought to embrace a certain degree of mesmerising, dream-like repeating. La repetition is surely an underlying theme in studying French. I remember as a pupil countless teacher-led sessions of Repetez avec moi - years were spent "going to the cinema" and on repeating verbs that take etre.

Repetition is fundamental to the whole French esprit. Think of Mitterand's repeat mistresses. And those strange, dreamy French films where the same scene is revisited without comment or explanation. Think of Eric Cantona and the endless pursuit of those trawlers of sardines. And one of the few memories I have of my French A-level is the character in our set text (a play by Ionesco) who repeatedly calls out, for no apparent reason, "We have 58 delivery boys."

For which I am grateful. Learning about repetition is the most essential skill that students will need at work. Take teachers. Yes, we have some unique experiences each day - such as finding out that one of my Year 8s is a direct descendant of the man who assassinated a British prime minister (Should someone with the assassination gene sit at the front or back of the class, I wonder?)

However, we need to get used to most parts of our working life being disturbingly Groundhog Day repetitious. I know, for instance, that at 9.52am each Monday I will meet the charming Ms Smethurst at almost exactly the same point on the pleasant, moss-mottled footpath between the English block and the school office. She is always heading to her Year 10 English lesson while I am returning from my weekly supervision of young people in the new student cafe area. She invariably catches me with my mouth bursting with the remains of a cheese and marmite panini, purchased at said cafe.

Earlier in the year we would chortle about this Groundhog moment, but now we chortle over how chortling has become part of the repetition. I am not sure where Ms Smethurst and I will take this experience next - short of my catching her out by altering the contents of my panini.

Thankfully, our routines will be rearranged by next year's timetable. But let's hope the Edexcel French exam stays exactly the same.

Stephen Petty, Head of humanities, Lord Williams's School, Thame, Oxfordshire.

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