Exam tables are turned

18th July 2003 at 01:00
Sick of hearing that A-levels are getting easier, teacher Rachel Wood decided there was only one way to find out...

The students looked at me anxiously, their faces showing the strain of hours spent revising. "Good luck!" I said jovially. "Just remember all I've taught you!" My words were greeted with a muffled guffaw of derision.

The invigilator coughed tactfully, waiting to start. However, this year instead of leaving the exam room, I took the paper he was holding out to me and sat down beside my students. I was taking the exam with them.

Each August for years I had sipped my early-morning coffee through clenched teeth as I listened to another round of so-called experts decrying the falling standards in our A-level exams. I had taught A-level English language for eight years and could only see it getting more demanding, not less. Who was right, then? The best way to find out, was to sit the exams myself. Hence in January this year I took the AS modules in English language and here I was sitting the A2 modules along with my students on a sticky June afternoon.

I took my original three A-level exams back in those "good old days" of the Sixties, before "standards slipped" in the progressive Seventies, when you had exams lasting three hours and you had to write three essays. Yet, this year I found myself with two essays to write in just one and a half hours.

Like many of my students, I had a lot to write on the text in the first question and ran over the allotted 45 minutes. I was in effect being penalised for knowing too much. Are our able students being prevented from showing off the full extent of their knowledge by such time restraints?

I was then faced with a difficult choice for the second question - the questions were both very precise and I would have to take time to plan my response. But I did not have time to pull the specific examples of language I would need from the muddled multitude of new words that have erupted like a rash over the English language in recent decades. I panicked; I chose the wrong question and was halfway down the page before I had really begun to answer it. I prayed the students frantically scribbling around me were not making the same tactical error.

In short, the exam was less a test of knowledge about English language than it was about exam technique and speed of thought. The speed at which you could manage to write legibly was also a factor. My schedule for next year's students will need to include less content and more speed training.

I must also confess to a further motive for taking A-level English language. After 30 years of teaching English language at all levels, I find myself in the peculiar position of no longer being qualified to teach my subject. That is, if you take as gospel, recent government recommendations that anyone teaching basic skills literacy should have a level 4 (foundation degree level) in the subject.

My initial teacher training was in drama and history; my subsequent degrees have been in education, not English language. At least an A-level in English language would qualify me to undertake work as a support teacher in basic skills literacy.

The final push came when I found myself trying to rally the flagging self-esteem of my A2 students by pointing out to them that they already had more qualifications in English language than I had because they had achieved AS-level. I had a mere O-level. One young wag piped up: "Then, why don't you take it with us?" So I signed up.

And my conclusions? Come August I will be ranting, not just muttering, at Radio 4 if politicians declare exams must be easier. They are not! I had to revise - well, does any teacher learn all those dates when they can refer to notes? My coursework was not quite as good as it could have been as I struggled to fit it into a busy schedule.

I panicked in the exams, forgot what I have taught for years and did not show off the breadth of my knowledge. Ah well - I am lucky; my future does not rest on the result of this exam. God help those for whom it does.

Rachel Wood is a lecturer at Stratford upon Avon College

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