We face a testing time, for us all

2nd May 2003 at 01:00
The next major school event we face is the Scottish Qualifications Authority exams. I can visualise the sequence.

The janitors are lifting desks out of the cellar into the hall.

Cleaners are debating whether they need to wash the desks and decide they will do for another year. The office staff are preparing sticky labels for the desks. Parents are signing letters agreeing to study leave for their children. The headteacher is searching through the safe for the keys to the SQA cupboard. The sun is shining.

This event, of course, marks the culmination of years of hard work, by the teachers if not the pupils. It signals hope that the school year will not last forever and that summer is on the horizon. It allows teachers of challenging S4 pupils to breathe a sigh of relief that the end is nigh.

Some years ago, it was the start of the period when principal teachers who taught only certificate classes could retire to the staffroom for a well-deserved rest while the assistant teachers continued with the junior classes. This, at least, has changed. Principal teachers now take their fair share of all classes, although most still reserve the Advanced Higher students to themselves since they are, of course, the best teachers of the subject.

The first exam is traditionally Standard grade English. The chief invigilator has assembled his or her troops and laid the papers on the exam tables. They wait expectantly in the assembly hall. The pupils are lined up in a corridor close by. They are excited. They crowd together and block the corridor.

Teachers try to force their way through. Tempers flare.

Senior staff arrive to marshal the students into the hall 10 at a time.

Those who have forgotten their SQA number have to run to the relevant noticeboard; some scribble the number on the back of their hand. They have now forgotten their seat number and have to rush to the other board to find this. They enter the hall. They place their bags and coats on the stage and sit in their seats. They are reminded to keep quiet.

The candidates who are having special arrangements - scribes, readers, technology support, extra time - have been placed in various locations, each with personal support and their own invigilator.

There is a telephone call from a worried parent because her (usually) child has fallen sick and is unable to attend.

Before the exam starts candidates are reminded of the rules relating to conduct. They are reminded that if they have a mobile phone, this should be placed in their bag, switched off.

There are always questions. "Do I need to use a pen?" "Can you lend me one?" "What is the date?" "Can I go to the toilet?"

Senior staff are scanning for empty spaces. Office staff are poised by the telephone.

The chief invigilator announces that the exam candidates can begin. There is absolute silence, not even the scratching of a pen. This lasts for about 10 minutes until someone puts his (usually) hand up to announce that he has finished the 60-minute paper. He is counselled that he cannot leave yet and he should try to do some more. The invigilators distribute more paper as required as quickly as is dignified and as quietly as possible.

When the exam is over, the pupils pour out into the foyer. The receptionist cannot hear a word on the telephone because of the excited voices. The headteacher strives to move them out as quickly as possible, only to be thwarted by the teachers who have gathered groups around them to discuss the paper.

After a short break, the next paper starts. The same problems with numbers occur. There is less excitement because the pupils are now experienced SQA candidates.

A group is missing because they thought the exam started 10 minutes later or because there was a queue in the cafe. One pupil has gone home because he (usually) thought he had only to sit one paper.

It is SQA exams time again.

John Mitchell is headteacher of Kilsyth Academy, North Lanarkshire

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