30 minutes (Answer all questions – Please use black Ink)

  1. ‘Testing, testing, 123.’ Discuss.

It’s no coincidence the first day of this month is recognised as an international distress signal; it’s the month that nearly all of us, at one time or another, have suddenly found ourselves desperate for help. It’s the time of the unholy hour and the sleepless night, the beta-blocked and the dead tired. For those in its thrall, it will be far from the, “merry merry month,” it will be filled with portent, potential and possibilities, it’s the month of ‘May-be?’, it’s the lead-up to exams, it’s time to revise.

For as surely as regret follows cake, exams loom in May. The moment to prove yourself or be damned is nigh.

Caught in the headlights of impending examinations, revisers grasp for salvation. An entire hope industry happily supplies last straws to clutch for, whether it’s help lines, nutshell books, subliminal tapes, or caffeine-laced pharmaceuticals. And it’s only going to get richer now Education Minister Michael Gove has promised more exams and less controlled assessments for 16 year-olds.

But why? Exams are a bizarre contrivance. If the mark of a civilization is how far from the bestial state we can reach, exams must represent a crowning achievement. Even acknowledging the existence of the vajazzle or Dairylea Triangles, mankind has produced nothing more artificial than the written exam. Experience tested through the regurgitation of symbols, where one’s potential for progress is marred or accelerated based on a few hours of scribbling? It not only has no parallels in nature, there are almost none outside academic life.

Some of the skills may be transferable; working hard, focussing on the essentials, remembering and reiterating facts.  But, once outside the academy, no one is ever going to sit you in a silent hall, with a hoard of your terrified peers, forcing facts from you; unless you’re caught up in some  South American mass spy round-up or attending a particularly chronic parents’ school quiz night.

The process is so exclusive to academic life, even the definitions of ‘examination’ and ‘revision’ change the moment you leave. With the former you won’t want an invigilator, and if you ask the plumber to revise a quote, the last thing you need is him memorising a line from Shakespeare.

The written examination doesn’t even have a long or distinguished history. For centuries the viva demonstrated academic achievement: conversation with a master who, through dialogue, could ascertain if you really understood the subject. A skill which, at least, might prepare you for job interviews or, more pertinently, arguing your corner down the benefit office.

So do exams really mean anything more than just what they are? Are they just exams for exams sake? Are they a tool to terrorise the young into conformity?

For some years, I have found myself running a house of corrections, or at least revisions; KS2s, GCSEs, ASs, and so on. And every May I have been warned that our clocks tick too loudly, the meals are at the wrong time, to stop breathing so loudly and “what I’m doing is none of your business, just go away!”

And so it will go on until we come up with a better rite of passage, a better proving ground for learning and maturity.  So may I politely request you close your car door quietly this month; that you speak in muted tones. Tip-toe round the maypole, hush and remember for some poor sod it’s the murderous, malevolent, month of Maybes.  Be thankful if it’s not you.

Marius Brill’s hilarious novel How To Forget (Black Swan £7.99) is out now in all good bookshops.


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