Poets corner exam pathos

19th May 2006 at 01:00
Warwick Mansell compares and contrasts two writers' verses on the season of GCSEs and A-levels

Examination papers blowing through doorways like seafront litter. Pupils racking their brains for ideas "like a grim crowd at Norwich City". Oh, and a pile of warm vomit.

Such is exam invigilation for poet Gareth Calway, an English teacher, brought to you in the week GCSE and A-levels began.

As hundreds of thousands of teenagers embark on weeks of hand-ache and, for some, heartache, the works of Mr Calway and Ian McMillan, the Barnsley bard, illustrate the potential pathos of the subject.

Mr McMillan, a regular television and radio guest, has penned a special poem for The TES this week (see box). More seriously, though, he said exams were a malign influence in classrooms and should be banned.

For Mr McMillan, host of BBC Radio 3's The Verb programme, which considers the spoken word around the world, and a regular on Newsnight Review, exams are a blot on the education landscape.

He has visited more than 1,000 primary and secondary schools, and said:

"Every school I go to is obsessed with exams."

He visits schools to read his poetry. But because his poems have been in GCSE and A-level syllabuses, he said he was often asked to give the "answers" to the meanings behind his words.

"Schools are teaching kids how to answer the exam questions, which seems to me to be amazing," said Mr McMillan. "I always had the idea that education should be about teaching someone to be a better human being, not to pass exams."

In his poems Mr Calway, who has taught at Smithdon high, Hunstanton, Norfolk, for 12 years, reminisces on tests in a new collection which also provides a sideways look at school inspections and parents' evenings.

In Mocks (see box below), he writes of teenagers "stoned on cold and boredom With fifty-two minutes still to go And nothing left to write about or remember".

Things have heated up for Exam Invigilation, based on his experiences of pupils struggling with their real GCSEs the following sweltering summer.

"Today in Norfolk, a boy has thrown up Over intermediate science paper 1 and the era Of caretakers with buckets arriving within the hour Is history."

The poem continues: "The June heat is on... it's beginning To cook the boy's dinner a second time. Our caretakers - Godot and son plc - Send a memo to say they will arrive asap.

"Let's go." "We can't." "Why not?" "We're waiting for Godot."

Mr Calway seems to have a problem with janitors, to judge from On Being Locked Inside a Tiny Room by a Well-Meaning Caretaker, a cry for help from the poet as an appointment with a cover class looms.

In another poem, he writes wryly of an assembly on "healthy Norfolk" having to be cancelled "because both members of staff concerned are ill".

In Ofsted, our narrator finds himself being judged by an Inspector Clouseau lookalike. The school's inspection is two days old before his class is visited, he writes, with the result that he's "climbing the walls", yelling at his pupils for talking.

Parents' Evening offers a portrait of a world-weary mother challenging the teacher's view that her child's "Promise and beauty... has gone Even before it's in bloom."

But Mr Calway's vision of education is not entirely jaundiced. Star Teacher, which he said sets out his ideals, simply asks a child to "look at the sky... (and) reach".

* warwick.mansell@tes.co.uk

More information on the poets from www.garethcalway.co.uk and www.ian-mcmillan.co.uk

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