I felt the fear and took the exam anyway

9th September 2011 at 01:00

A few days ago I took the functional skills (FS) English exam, the same test that is used for the summative assessment of my students' learning.

The last time I held any exam results of my own was 20 years ago, while the other hand was flicking a V-sign to the headteacher. Suffice to say I lost the results slip in a pub that same afternoon, along with my dignity (or so I was told).

There had been discussion in our staffroom about the value of sitting a level 2 test in one's specialism, considering all functional skills staff have a subject qualification of at least a level 5. As supposed experts in our subjects, the fear of undermining oneself by failing is palpable.

I maintained that we should confront that anxiety in the same way our students have to and argued my case against a number of people whom I respect as really good teachers.

As I had been so vocal about this situation, I couldn't slink away from it. This week I breezed into the exam room with the confidence of someone with a sure-fire pass. Until the exam began .

The timer in the corner of the test screen counted down. I am clueless as to what prompted me, but inexplicably I removed all my jewellery. Bearing in mind that I'm from the Nancy Dell'Olio school of sartorial understatement, that was five minutes wasted. In the reading comprehension part of the test, each question had me doubting my own choices.

Then came the writing section. I launched into the first of two questions with gusto. Such zealous gusto, in fact, that I only left myself 10 minutes to tackle the second question. I came away with a new sense of empathy for the students.

Despite functional skills sessions being referred to by the occasional antediluvian lecturer as "muppet class", it's hard to dismiss that their syllabus is at the centre of all other learning, whatever the vocation or specialism. Without accurate calculation of water pressure a plumber could not make a toilet flush. Without some English skill a nursery worker could not write the required daily report of their charge's activity.

Vocational learning is the main purpose of FE, therefore more time, trouble, effort and energy should be spent ensuring students have the basic building blocks of functional literacy, numeracy and ICT that facilitate it.

Amarjit Basi, who recently took the role of principal at New College Nottingham, agrees and believes that the illiterate and innumerate are likely to be even more excluded, further disadvantaged and less prosperous in a digital world. Mr Basi has a reputation as a national leader in innovation, having once held the position of key skills co-ordinator, and regards the intrinsic value of core subjects as essential.

"I believe the most fundamental equality challenge in our society and profession remains the one that ensures every member of society has the basic ability to read, write and make sense of numbers," he told me. "It is the key to functioning effectively, socially and economically, and sets a key influence in family aspiration."

This is a welcome sentiment from someone who is well known for the championing of vocational excellence and technological advancements.

So, now, as I wait for my English results, I am scouring countless practice tests before taking maths and ICT. I feel secure that whatever the outcome, in sitting the exam I've gathered some useful insights to share with my students. Namely, fear of exams might not be comfortable, but it shows you care about trying to pass. Also, don't wear complicated earrings.

Sarah Simons teaches functional skills English in an inner-city FE college.

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