Stir crazy in the exam hall

23rd August 1996 at 01:00
At my brother's wedding nine years ago I made a slightly risque crack during my best man's speech. Glancing at my father's reaction, I noticed that he had his Edward Woodward face on and for a time his family nickname became "the Equaliser". Now retired, he has a new handle for a couple of months each year. He becomes the Invigilator. I can picture him moving quietly but militarily among the rows like a kind of stealth bomber on parade - he was with the air force in Japan after the war. And I know he must be screamingly bored by it all.

Who wouldn't be? In the official SCE exams there is not even the stress of having to contain the bears who have finished early and have decided to play up. They are allowed to go after half an hour.

At this point I should recount some funny stories about exam supervision, but I can't think of any. On a good day my mind goes for a ramble. I start designing laser scanning systems that sweep the room just above head height. Should the beams become interrupted by a hand raised for more paper a little motorised trolley will be computer guided to the appropriate desk.

It was in an exam room a few years ago that I came up with the idea of the satellite microwave oven. The concept won me a bottle of Cognac in a newspaper diary competition and I built an article around this alleged new threat to our children's health. I am probably correct in saying that this represents my only profitable experience in 13 years of stalking the rows of desks trying not to squeak.

I hate the gravity of it all and worse than seeing a hard-working kid frowning silently over a script is the thought that I am seen by them as part of it all, if not a high priest in the cathedral of miserable toil then at least an altar boy. I try to smile reassuringly on the rare occasions I make eye contact with someone I know.

But I want to do so much more. At the beginning of an hour-long stint my index finger is twitching, desperate to point out calculations or sentences that should be checked again. Some time in the middle I am fighting the impulse to do Monty Python silly walks between the rows. By the end I am ready for pure disruption.

I eye the stage of the assembly hall. There is a PA system there with a green "on" button. What now? I could do a bit of stand-up comedy, telling the "hamster and Sellotape" gag that my pal Colin from Dundee claims was his parting shot to a sixth-year class he had on teaching practice. Or I could do a fanatical, Ian Paisley-style denunciation of examinations.

My favoured option, though I cannot sing, is to stick on a backing tape, cut the lights save for those on the stage, and launch into "Wild Thing" by the Troggs. As I strut around snarling and twisting the mike stand I encourage the kids to roll up their scripts and stab the air with them as they join in the "na-na-nananana" bits.

This is why exams take place in large halls not single classrooms. It is nothing to do with making economical use of staff. Rather, it is to ensure that when one invigilator goes stir crazy there is always another one on hand to send for help.

The Equaliser has yet to flip. My guess is that if he does he'll give them a few choruses of the Japanese song he learnt as a member of the occupying forces. And when you come to think of it, keeping an eye on people in their own territory is perfect training for exam supervision.

Gregor Steele once almost composed a poem during supervision.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today