Ordeal by brown envelope

12th September 1997 at 01:00
Television pictures of excited A-level students hugging each other as they celebrated their results - before reaching for the Nokia mobile phones - brought home how differently exam results are communicated now. Television regularly shows groups of pupils "discovering" their awards, even opening the envelopes in their own homes. Will the next stage in television verite be to film the anguish of someone disappointed by their envelopes, an exercise in educational schadenfreude?

I'm just about old enough to remember the public announcement of the qualifying exam, when Miss Dewart read out the S1, S2, S3, J1, J2, J3 or modified categories to our primary 7 class. I can't read Stan Barstow's "Joby" without recognising Joby's sense of dislocation when the 11-plus separated him from his friends. Imagine being labelled "modified" at 11. Years later the Highers were handed over by a postman whose smile as he said "big examination results" was hugely conspiratorial. I sometimes ask pupils if they take the envelope to a private place to open it, to compose themselves before the public announcement. This year one girl said that her aunt and uncle had taken the envelope, placed it one the table in front of her and commanded, "now open it".

In France, there's even less of a hiding place as the Bac results appear on Minitel and anyone can check them. The local paper prints huge lists of which students have satisfied which jury - at the same time as the student learns the results. One friend's daughter learnt from the paper that she had an oral exam 48 hours later, with the whole course to be revised, in order to achieve the required points. How many Scottish students could survive 40 minutes' questioning on Plato's Republic? One of her classmates was in despair about the number of points needed in her oral until she realised she had miscalculated the total. Now, of course, she's reading mathematics at university.

Perhaps it's a reflection on the Scottish psyche that posting the results to the individual's home gives that option of privacy.

When the appeals come round there's an upsetting inconsistency about the policy employed by different schools and different principal teachers. No one would support appeals that are spurious, but I've known cases where a principal teacher (usually male) either through laziness or a sense of pompous authority won't make appeals to legitimate candidates, stating that if the candidate had been any good they would have got it first time round.

All teachers have known cases of pupils gaining awards that we'd be tempted to appeal against, but if there is a chance of an award on appeal then one should be lodged.

We had a visit last year from a delegation of teachers from China. In the booklet about their school they listed the grading of their staff. Out of about 100 staff, eight were afforded the title "teaching celebrity" or "expert teachers" and the remainder merely "senior academic", "intermediate academic" or "top teacher". That's what I call a public display of ranking. Somewhat ironic though when top teacher is the bottom grade, and I don't know whether or not there was a right of appeal.

A few years back, Radio Clyde ran a poll (along with Woolworths) to find the city's "superteacher". Despite cynics who reported children filing out of the store with armfuls of voting forms, the person laughing all the way to a Mediterranean cruise was the successful teacher. Who can argue against such public results and acclamation by market forces?

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