I sat my A levels a very long time ago, but, to this day, when May and June come around each year, the memory of “revision guilt” still haunts me. When it seems like the rest of the world is planning trips to Wimbledon, bingeing on al fresco lunches, and flying off on mini-breaks to European capitals, I should be burying my nose in my books, surely? That guilt never seems to have left me.
True, there is a brief period when every candidate lays down their pen after the last exam, swearing never to go near anything academic ever again; honestly believing that, from now on, there will be nothing more taxing in life than reading crime novels and walking in the countryside, lying on the grass and staring up at the sky.
But this doesn’t last. Come September, we are ready to do it all over again. There will be university degrees, MAs, professional courses and diplomas, and all with summer exam sessions, no doubt.
These days I experience this guilt vicariously through my students. At a time of year where everything is lush, green and glorious outside, they are stuck indoors, hunched, pale and pinched, over their revision notes. If they are anything like me, they will be experiencing severe pangs of guilt every time that they find themselves enjoying anything that is not a revision-related activity.
And yet, I never cease to be amazed that so many manage to stay so chipper; for quiet terror must surely be lurking within them? Throwing a packed exam timetable into the turmoil of adolescence is tough for teenagers. The majority, however, are resilient and will take exam season in their stride. For others, their emotional reserves will be tested to the limit.
While exams obviously have a huge part to play in our educational lives, it is important to keep some perspective.
Should heads and teachers just accept “revision guilt” as a rite of passage and learn to embrace it? Maybe we should stop beating ourselves up? Maybe we should stop assuming there is a “perfect” student within each of us who knows exactly how to revise properly and has the self-discipline to be perfect; knows how to make the best use of every second; knows how to balance revision and a social life. For some, one solution might be winter exams. Void of blue-sky distractions, hay fever and long daylight, such a move might present a preferable option?
However, realistically, there is no other good time to hold national exams within the existing three-school-term model. So, I guess summer exams are here to stay.
If it is any consolation to my students, I do empathise with their agony; my own revision guilt lives on within me.
But, come the end of June, I can say with confidence that exam season will have passed for another year and before we know it, our students will be stretched out in the sun, watching the clouds go by, certain in the knowledge that they will never take an exam again – ever.
Sue Freestone is headteacher of King’s Ely in Cambridgeshire