It takes more than a dictionary to pass

15th August 1997 at 01:00
The tome in my hand seemed to be red hot. It was hard to believe that the dictionary - which was contraband and likely to result in disqualification when I last sat a Higher 22 years ago - was in 1997 a standard piece of kit for a language exam. I blame the Brownies, a Scottish upbringing and Enid Blyton for an overdeveloped sense of fair play and self-righteousness. I felt simultaneously a cheat - and cheated. A cheat because it did not seem right to fill in the many gaps in my knowledge by looking up a reference book.

The diehard in me brought up with assessment by the sudden death of the traditional exam ultimately believes this format the most valid test, the best indication of how well students can think on their feet in a given subject.

I felt cheated because use of dictionaries seemed to devalue the exam. What was the point of working towards something diminished by a licence to be lazy about learning vocabulary? I pooh-poohed the concept of dictionaries in the exam room as a commonsense parallel to how we deal with language in the real world.

There was unease, too, about continuous assessment. The Brownie in me muttered that the devil must surely tempt those for whom a certain grade is essential to their future to seek illicit assistance with portfolios. But these notions of a dumbing down of Higher language exams are disproved by recent figures reporting an astonishing decline over the past 20 years in the numbers sitting modern language Highers.

Back at the beginning of the academic year the less high-minded me gave a wide grin when told about modern assessment. For someone who did a crash course Gaelic O grade in 1976 and since then had little contact with the language, the Higher suddenly seemed less daunting.

The incentive to study came from a decision to enrol the children in Edinburgh's Gaelic-medium school. Although it is not necessary for parents to be Gaelic speakers I wanted to do their evening reading preparation with them in the same way as with English. Towards the end of the eldest's time in primary 3, homework was taking mother and son longer and longer.

Although last session only a handful of adults wished to sit the Higher at Edinburgh's Telford College, the college to its credit eventually agreed to proceed partly because it is the only Gaelic Higher class for adults in the Lothians.

The first noticeable difference between school and college was that our tutor Michel Byrne did not give us a row for failing to submit homework. Not unnaturally, he expected us to be genuine grown-ups and produce the self-discipline to work.

About Christmas a friend inadvertently lit the blue touch paper for me by recounting her difficulties in persuading her teenager to study. Although a good pass was not important it occurred to me that in a few years' time persuading my children to make the required effort for exams might be tricky if I did little more than amble through my own syllabus.

Another difference between sitting a Higher at 38 as opposed to 16 was a move away from last-minute cramming. For me it had worked in terms of passing exams but this time I knew that if I wanted to retain much of what I learnt I would have to stagger learning. Besides, Gaelic grammar was something of a Himalayan peak. I have to confess I ultimately never got beyond base camp with this.

Although I was not like schoolchildren, juggling other subjects, I was juggling care of three young children, a house and part-time work, which at present necessitates working several evenings and some weekends. In another of those moments of nauseating self-righteousness, I hrumphed that the teenagers who babysit for us seemed to revise while sunbathing in the garden. I seemed to pick up a book when I reached bed or while helping two kids with their own homework and waiting for fish fingers to cook.

An arts degree and extra years of life did, however, give me a definite advantage over schoolchildren in interpretation of literature. I was probably also less nervous than a teenager because my future career was not on the line, and having lived and worked a little I know we are not the sum of our academic results. Anyway, the stabs of anxiety on the morning of this year's Higher were as nothing compared to easily the most terrifying time of my adult life: the minutes before pushing open the door of a national newspaper for my first shift on Fleet Street. It is not only in the Beano that knees knock.

Was it worth it? I got an A, and my son and I manage his homework far quicker.

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