Don't kill Bill in exam hall

11th June 2004 at 01:00
Anyone who has acted in a Shakespeare play is never the same afterwards.

You simply cannot spend night after night immersed in the spectacular language, images and actions and say it left you stone cold.

Even as a 14-year-old playing the modest role of one of the witches in Macbeth, I knew the whole play off by heart. The rhythms are still burned on my memory: "Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf witches' mummy, maw and gulf of the ravined salt sea sharkroot of hemlock digg'd i' the dark ..."

Playing the part of Brutus, learning 700 lines of magnificent verse, angsting about Caesar becoming too powerful, stabbing the poor beggar (he had it coming), and then committing suicide every day for weeks, was immensely moving.

All of which makes me monumentally browned off when I see the great man's masterpieces turned into exam fodder.

Macbeth is one of the most magnificent plays ever written and the early scenes with Banquo some of the most striking. Skilful teachers can bring it to life, despite the difficulty of the language, until the examination comes, whereupon it is dismembered and interred forever.

So what were key stage 3 pupils required to write about this year? Banquo warning Macbeth not to be too influenced by the witches? No. They were asked to answer a magazine question from Sam who has been told off by a form tutor for spending too much time with friends instead of doing school work. Dear Sam, Get your finger out and do some work, you idle git. Now let's talk about Banquo and Macbeth.

At its best the examination process is a check on what people have learned, a valuable tool for pupils, teachers and society at large. At its worst it can comprehensively and irrevocably hammer the life out something, however magnificent or dynamic, so that children never want to see it again as long as they have breath.

Question 2: Look at this painting by Titian, then pick out the colour from the Dulux colour chart he would be most likely to choose for his bathroom (catch question, it was probably eau de nil).

In science examinations beautiful craggy crystals soon become two-dimensional perfectly regular line drawings of diamonds and cubes. The most searing events in history turn into a litany of dates, monarchs and Acts of Parliament.

Only when I read Professor Hoskins on lost villages as an adult did I realise that the bumpy fields of Leicestershire concealed a story containing some tragic events when people were simply turned off their land. For exam purposes it had merely been a case of learning the dates of the Enclosures Acts.

At its worst, formal assessment can strip learning down to a skeleton version of reality, no blood nor flesh, no brain, no heart. Crass exam questions make the activity even less worthwhile. Every summer you see young people, in their daily lives full of vitality, going into large halls muttering slogans and formulae to themselves as they enter.

Reductio ad utterly absurdum.

The answer, as ever, is that if you can't beat them, join them. It could be quite good fun composing questions that are absolutely futile, completely subverting all that is vital in the subject, so here is my omni-purpose exam paper for the clinically dead.

1. Look at the picture of the palace of Versailles and calculate how many breeze blocks it would take to provide the same cubic capacity at much lower cost.

2. The Battle of Hastings - Norman victory or merely one in the eye for Harold? Discuss.

3. Listen to Beethoven's symphony no 6 in F, the "Pastoral", and the Southend Glee Club singing "Oh we do like to be beside the seaside", and then write an essay saying where you would most like to spend your holidays.

4. With reference to Portia's famous soliloquy "The quality of mercy is not strained", imagine you are cooking a meal and say what you would strain and what you would leave dripping wet.

5. In the light of your studies of the Earth and solar system, decide if a chocolate bar called Venus or Jupiter might have been more commercially successful than one called Mars.

6. Read Wordsworth's poem "I wandered lonely as a cloud" and explain whether you think tulips fill a vase better than daffodils.

7. After listening to Pavarotti singing the Puccini aria "Your tiny hand is frozen", explain (a) why the stupid woman didn't wear a glove to warm up her mitt, and (b) why a big fat bloke like him, with a belting voice, couldn't just breathe on it.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today