Revelations brought on by Saint Joan

21st September 2007 at 01:00

HOW WOULD you have done? I mean, really, how do you think you might have performed if it had been you rather than your students or your son or daughter receiving your public examination results last month?

I suppose it's a bit like asking how Beckham would have looked alongside Pele or who would come out on top if Roger Federer could meet Rod Laver at the height of his racketing powers: futile but fun.

Sadly, in my case I already know the answer to this hypothetical question: badly. Many moons ago, I did sit A-levels. Or, more exactly, I sat an A-level. For the other two, as the row of Xs on the yellowing results slips record, I simply failed to turn up. For the one I did take English literature I received a grade E. And for all that I might try and kid myself that an E in the late 1960s must be worth at least a B 40 years on, that looks like a pretty dismal return for two years' work.

These days, of course, we don't look to the student if we want to assess educational performance, we look to the institution. The question and sometimes it seems to be the only one is this: how much value has been added to a person as they pass through their place of education? Value in this case is necessarily assessed in terms of exam results, because only exam grades can be measured.

By this calculation, my old school would have been judged a spectacular flop at least as far as the "value" they tried and apparently failed to add to "One-E" Jones. No matter that he happened to throw a huge wobbler just as his final exams approached. Value added deals in figures, not excuses.

But is this the only way to evaluate an educational experience? This was the thought that passed through my brain recently as I watched a revival of Saint Joan, Bernard Shaw's 1920s play about the martyrdom of Joan of Arc.

It was prompted by my noticing how much of the play I actually knew. Not just the odd line, but great chunks of it seemed to have been laid down in the sedimentary layers of my subconscious. As I hadn't seen Saint Joan for as long as I could remember, those memories could only have come from one source: my A-level in English.

My old teacher believed that drama should be more than just words on the page, so he set us to work on a class production. I was assigned the part of a grumpy old cove who spends all his time stomping about complaining. This may or may not have assisted us in achieving any recognised learning outcomes, had such things existed then. But it certainly helped to bring the play to life.

More to the point, though, was what I personally got out of the ideas that form such a central part of the play. I was 17 going on 18, and something of a late developer. So to find myself actively engaged by the concepts of Protestantism and nationalism that Shaw debates in Saint Joan was a revelation.

When re-takes came round, I did manage to improve on that grade E. But the real value to come out of those two years of A-level study, was being taught to think. You can't weigh or measure it, or slice it up and sell it by the pound, but it's there, it's real, it happened.

Talk about never being off duty. It's the climactic moment of the play, Joan is about to sizzle at the stake. and all I can think about are the inadequacies of value added.

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