Charity begins

18th June 2004 at 01:00
Who's really being examined - the kids or the teachers?

Invigilating exams at St Brian's is rather like checking in passengers at a major airport. There is a long list of banned items which includes - alongside the usual cheat's paraphernalia of mobile phones and pagers - two-way radios, digital telescopes and satellite tracking devices. And they say that once upon a time all you had to worry about was hidden calculators and dictionaries.

The invigilators spent half a day at the local police station last week, learning how to conduct a pat-down search without infringing human rights legislation and conducting psychometric tests on a sample group of Year 11s to assess how they would react to exam conditions. We were only mildly surprised that they all produced exact matches to the Interpol profile of "category A threats to national security".

As I watch my GCSE group filing forlornly to their doom, I am tempted to ask if they packed their bags themselves or if anyone has asked them to carry anything extra on board. My mood dips further when I see the exam paper and regret that I didn't take up one pupil's offer to break open the office safe and photocopy the questions.

My head of department's extended sick leave meant that the unit on the Russian revolution was covered by a string of supply teachers with a range of pacification techniques. The most popular supply with the kids was an Australian 19-year-old called Keira Knightley, whose one and only lesson plan, we later discovered, consisted of repeated screenings of Dr Zhivago and Rasputin: legend of the Mad Monk. As I wander the rows of baffled pupils, occasionally asking, "More paper?" (a more pointless question it would be hard to imagine), I note that the most popular answer to the first question, "Who was the leader of the Bolsheviks?", is "Omar Sharif".

The defeated begin their retreat from the hall after about 20 minutes, and within an hour the place is empty. I gather up the papers and prepare for my second dose of hell today: work experience visits. Those Year 11 and 12 pupils deemed "not suited to the exam environment" have been packed off on hastily arranged placements (or "safe houses" as we know them) for the week.

The careers co-ordinator described this year's placements as diverse and challenging, so I am a little surprised to find myself at a dry cleaner's on the high street. The owner is a kindly man who explains that Daniel has been unable to master the use of the Hoffman press and that dry cleaning is not an advisable career route for an asthmatic. Then it's next door to the chemist's just in time to see Michelle Moffatt, a referral unit regular, being escorted from the premises. A man in a white lab coat explains that she has been caught forging prescriptions for temazepam.

My final visit is to an estate on the other side of town. Some kind of home-working enterprise, presumably. I ring a doorbell and am greeted by a smiling Ramona Lynch, who tells me how much she's enjoying herself and asks if I want to meet the girls. A woman in a negligee comes down the stairs and enthuses about Ramona's secretarial skills. In her placement diary, under the heading "Tasks undertaken", Ramona has written "general maid duties". I know the feeling.

Next week: The head returns from therapy

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