The news this morning was dominated once again by the news that GCSE passes are excellent once again and many pupils have received very high grades, which always prompts the discussion about whether or not GCSE's are easier than O levels. But before we have that discussion, perhaps we should go back in time a bit, and think about our own experiences.
I myself being a Sixties baby , was an O level girl. I can still remember the whole painful process. School was very different then, and so was the exam system. We didn't have modular exams , early entries or vocational quailfications - we sat "O" levels or CSE's. If you got a top grade in a CSE it was supposedly considered to be the same as an "O" level C grade, although even at the young age, I got the impression that employers and colleges didn't really share that opinion.
I remember the process starting a couple of years earlier with the options. At 14 you were (and still are) expected to choose the qualifications which were going to shape your future. I remember that I wanted to do French and History because I was good at both - but they were in different option groups, so I had to take Biology which I hated and wasn't good at. Some people aren't meant to be scientists, and I was one of those. I can still remember the mortifying moment when I got a mere 36% in my mock O level - scared to go home and admit my worst ever result.
Then there was the time before the exams - up to the much anticipated study leave (16th May 1980 - the date is still imprinted on my mind!) - it was drummed into us what we had to do and what was expected of us. I created revision timetable after revision timetable. We had a brief respite from the seriousness of it all on the day we left. I still have my autograph book signed by all my friends, and photographs of me, Mandy and Petra fooling about with the boys on a lovely sunny day. School friends that became friends for life - I met up with Mandy and Petra only a few months ago and we talked about this very subject.
The whole of the summer in 1980 was very hot and not the kind of weather you felt like revising in, but there was no question of it - we had to do it. Mum made me stay in the dining room or my bedroom with my books for hours. The windows were wide open and I remember being driven nearly mad by "Seasons in the Sun" being played at full volume by my next door one neighbour - the song still makes me cringe now.
The exam hall was the next scary place. So formal. We had always been taught respect for our teachers and our school We stood up when a teacher walked into a room and there was very little bad behaviour at the school I went to - I had a great relationship with the teacher there - but then perhaps this was more to do with my perception of things and the person I was, rather than the experience of everyone in the school, I'm not sure.
But still , the fact remains that we had had no formal exam experience at this point. There was no November exam series, or January exam series, or year 10 entry - this was it. June 1980 - Year 11 (fourth year as it was known to us) - our one big chance.
There are two exams which stick in my mind - English Language - I opened the paper and went blank. I felt fear and panic - I just could not think what to write on the subject I was given. And German O level - getting my first migraine in the middle of it was scary . I sat there for ages, before a teacher came to take me out of the room and I could see everyone looking at me and wondering what was happening.
Then results day. Not like now when you are given an envelope or a folder and you can open the results at your leisure. We went up to the school and there were just pages of results on huge pieces of paper stuck on the wall. You hastily scribbled down your own results , while trying to get a glance at everyone else's at the same time.
It was OK for me - I got 4 B's and 4 C's and should have been happy - but my arch rival Julie got 6 B's and 2 C's - she just had to didn't she. I say arch rival in jest - she was actually one of my best friends, but she always beat me in everything - from fashion stakes, to boys and now in exam grades.
Going home to Mum and Dad - they were pleased..... all was good.
And now I'm an Exams Officer in a secondary school!
I watch pupils go through that process every year. I enter them for their exams, I watch them go through school and eventually I meet them in the Exam Hall. I meet most of them when they are in year 9 as they start their first modular GCSE's.
I give them their exam timetables and I talk to them about planning their revision and see them walking round with their revision books and attending their revision classes, summer schools or Easter schools.
I talk to pupils who are feeling nervous about being in a big exam room. I make sure that the exam room is comfortable for everyone and try to make them feel relaxed.
We have strict rules to follow - that hasn't changed from 1980 - no talking, no laughing, no eating, no notes, no phones, no looking round at your friend, no leaving before the exam has finished.
I see them after the exams, when I release them to the changing rooms and hear the excited chatter from some and then witness the worried looks of others because their friends have answered the last question in a completely different way than they have.
None of that has changed either.
I see them leave excitedly for study leave, signing each others shirts and taking photographs, just as we did.
And today, I have been giving out results - so that they can see what they have achieved with all their hard work. It is one of my favourite days of the year.
I hope that some of you can see where I am leading with today's blog. Yes - it is constantly reported that GCSE's are a lot easier than O levels used to be. I can see where the discussion comes from, because I have had a look at spare papers when an exam is finished and thought "well I could do that"
But I'm 47, have had a good education, worked since I was 18 and learned lots of things along the way, that I never could have learned at school.
My life experience, work experience and continued education, all make it easy for me to look at a paper and feel that I would do well in it.
Of course they look easier - I've learned a lot of things about a lot of subjects since I sat an "O" level paper - a lot of the questions that were so puzzling when I was 16, are common sense now.
And if I can appreciate that then so should the experts. Outsiders looking at these papers, are looking briefly at a series of questions. They are not taking the test and their future college course or career does not depend on it. There is no pressure - they are looking for something to criticise.
To even suggest that they are easier than O levels, they must be around the same age as me, have probably continued their education for longer than me and so are obviously well qualified to take an exam of this level and pass it and perhaps to them it does seem easy.
But they are forgetting all the factors, I have just talked about.
Come and do my job for an exam season and you will see everything these pupils go through in their aim to achieve these fantastic results.
Nothing has changed. Pupils still work hard, get nervous, revise like mad and worry about what their results will be.
These critics should remember the weeks before they were sitting their own exams. Remember the pressure they were under. Remember being scared. Remember cramming the last few reads of your notes before you walk into the exam hall - and that terrifying feeling as you go to get the results. Remember the whole experience of being 16.
Pupils who do well should not be criticised and made to think that their qualification that they have worked so hard to get is worth less than the one their parent's or Aunty got 30 years ago.
We should be celebrating their success and praising them. Give them encouragement to continue their education , to learn and to thrive and to become hard working, well adjusted adults with a successful future ahead of them.
Well done to everyone who has achieved fantastic GCSE results today - you should be very proud.
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