Hardy's saddest tale;Talkback

8th October 1999 at 01:00
James Ardglass has never forgotten one pupil's fateful encounter with a GCSE examiner.

Her name was Laura. She was tall and thin, with long, jet-black hair and fine, sharp features. She sat by herself at the front of the classroom, her big eyes following our thematic meanderings through Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd. Reserved, although not unpopular, Laura was typical of many students who take their work seriously.

Modest, self-contained, in many ways unresponsive, but with a tell-tale faraway sparkle in the eye, and her sights set on a good grade. Intelligent - oh yes; in the modest way some girls are, wrapped in that coyness that can smother and sometimes ruin the most promising. It is the same coyness that intelligent and ambitious girls learn to use as a shield behind which to advance and mature. Pleasant, industrious, nonchalant - girls like Laura quietly get on with it. Then there is fate.

His name was Rawlings. A senior examiner for GCSE literature, his judgment and accuracy were beyond question. I was a mere fledgling in those days and he was my senior. A retired public school teacher, Rawlings had an eagle's eye for detail - preferred answers tailored seamlessly to the needs of the question and held a religious belief in the upholding of the examination standard.

He inspired confidence and, to a lesser degree, respect. It was not difficult to see why he was a senior examiner. But he had this thing about Hardy. I noticed it, so did others, usually in the standardisation meeting when questions were scrutinised. For some unfathomable reason Rawlings always argued the Hardy questions down. "Not enough on Bathsheba", "No real understanding of Boldwood".

The difference was never great, but it could be significant if a candidate was borderline. So it was with Laura.

An examiner can never mark his or her own school. I knew Rawlings had marked my school. After standardisation, curiosity drove me to the script library. My own school's grades were as predicted. Rawlings had done a thorough job. I glanced at names I recognised. There was Laura, solid on Macbeth and Milton, down on Hardy - enough to flush her pass away.

In my position as a junior marker I could do little. I knew Rawlings could - and would - argue the case, but I also knew Laura would probably have passed with a grain more sympathy from another examiner. The best bet was an appeal.

On results day, there was Laura, standing tall in the school corridor, looking pleased and collected, yet unable to hide her sadness. I knew she wanted to take A-level literature. I spoke to her about appeals and taking the course regardless. She smiled, thanked me and left.

I phoned her parents, kind people who agreed with my judgment. But Laura preferred not to appeal. In the autumn she did embark on A-levels, but chose geography instead of literature, lacking the confidence the GCSE pass endows.

At the end of the first year she dropped geography, took up literature and managed a D in just a year. I knew what an achievement this was and how much better she would have done in two years. But for Laura this merely confirmed her failure.

I lost track of her after A-level, but was told she didn't apply to university. Two years later I found out she'd married a wide boy of huge self-importance and deep immaturity. Within a year she had a child but no husband.

Time passed. I always remember Laura as an example of how important it is as an examiner to get the grade right - to give each script the same consideration.

No one will ever convince me Laura's literature result was not a decisive influence in her life. Yes, within the system of public examinations the candidate can fail; but the system should never fail the candidate.

Eight years later I heard of Laura again. She was living in a village with her young son. She was content but unfulfilled. Apparently she was working on an organic farm, earning a bare living, but content far away from the madding crowd.

James Ardglass teaches in Dorset. He writes under a pseudonym

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