Help, I've got the prelim pains again;Opinion

5th March 1999 at 00:00
WALK INTO any secondary school cafeteria during January and February and you may overhear a student say: "Did you pass your Higher physics?" Yes, the prelim season is upon us again.

At this time of year relaxation goes out the window and you have to devise ways of coping with the marking load. Secondary teachers cave in collectively to the highest stress and sickness levels of the year. This is the time, too, for departments to snipe polemically about their relative burdens of marking. If you teach English, you reserve your bile for the maths department who, as far as you are concerned, are in the Third Division of marking mileage.

But, before maths teachers start thinking thunderous thoughts about me, relax. I'm only citing an example here, not attempting to score brownie points. It is a fact that the onerousness of marking exam papers varies from one department to the next. Managing to stay calm during the marking marathon may earn you a pint in the pub (principal teachers feel obliged!) but the main debate has to be about whether prelims benefit the pupils and inform the teachers.

Harken back to your own schooldays and remember that cocktail of nervousness and anticipation as you were marshalled into the assembly hall. That solitary desk had your number on it for the duration of the exams. Of course, these were the days when "exams were exams" and you had no Motorola or Nokia with which to phone mummy so that she could soothe your troubled brow or take instructions to video Jerry Springer.

Then, back to the classroom you would go for a public airing of the marks, often called out in order of merit to ensure maximum humiliation. But it would galvanise you into studying even harder for the real exams later in the year.

What about students today? How do they rate the prelims? I can't claim to have trawled for opinion with forensic-like precision but I have spoken to a variety of pupils. Mainly, they see prelims as a defining time, like moving from glimpsing a map over someone else's shoulder to viewing it directly for oneself. Not one pupil indicated that the exam system would be better without them.

The reasons for such unequivocal support are not difficult to fathom. Something quite primitive is at work. In the exam situation, adrenalin and other stress hormones flow, enabling pupils to harvest information which they don't even recollect planting in their brains in the first place.

The pressure of the exam situation incites a buzz and a determination to perform which can scarcely be captured in the ordinary classroom situation. The exam performance, too, is probably enhanced, precisely because it is watched by a captive audience of parents, teachers and, most important, the pupils themselves.

An advantage for the teachers is the insights the prelim papers give us. We do, of course, spare our pupils the vilification we may have been subjected to in school. However, a recent prelim highlighted a weak area in one of my good pupils. It cost him 10 marks, it might not have been picked up in class, but it is easily remedied and I am confident he will not make that mistake again.

I have to say, though, that the pupils I feel most sorry for, re prelims or the real thing, are the children of teachers. My own daughter testifies to this. How adept I was at trotting out the advice which recommends four or five studying hours per week for each Higher subject. If I have learnt anything from this experience, it is about the merits of reverse psychology. The days I managed not to nag were the days when the darling did most work.

One last thing. This experience blurs the boundaries between teacher and parent. I advised my Higher English class recently to eat a big breakfast on the morning of the exam. Quite a few later commented on how they felt more energetic. And there is one other crumb of comfort - when my daughter received her exam results, in the euphoria of the moment, she thanked me for all my help.

Funny, isn't it? When you look back, even nagging can take on a whole new mantle.

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