Testing Times

19th April 2019

Heather Harris suffers the stress of exams – and lives to tell a light-hearted tale…

A hamster. That was what my son turned into during his A Levels. A hamster, with earphones and constantly bulging cheeks – filled with everything except the wholesome snacks and intelligence-boosting oily fish that I’d read were vital for every revising child.

Except he wasn’t – revising, that is; at least, he didn’t seem to be. Every time I tentatively knocked on his bedroom door during daylight hours he was asleep (still with headphones in), curled up like his rodent twin.

“I can only work at night,” was his daily grunt over his 2pm breakfast. Any suggestion that he might validate this fact by looking at his revision notes during his waking hours was met by a look of incredulity equal only to his response to my suggestion he got some fresh air (something I’d also read was vital for exam success). We were not on the same page. Or any page.

So I stopped reading. I also stopped associating with any parent of a studious child (usually girls) in his peer group. “Oh Heather, I’m worried that Emily’s working far too hard. She’s insisting on setting her alarm for 6am and revising for 13 hours a day.”

Meanwhile, the only thing my son was insisting was that we had enough milk to keep him hydrated during his nocturnal studies – enough to keep a small herd in near constant production. (Sadly I hadn’t read of any correlation between dairy intake and the ability to remember the periodical table or the sub-plot of King Lear).
And, bizarrely, I never questioned the costly drain of a weekly vat of semi-skimmed on my grocery bill. Because we don’t, do we? During revision and exams there is an unwritten rule that parents never ‘rock the boat’ with a studying teenager.

At any other time, a book at the dinner table would be frowned upon, for example. During exam time it was positively celebrated – no matter what the subject matter. At least it meant he wasn’t on his phone. The usual row over his turn to do the washing up / walk the dog / put the bins out was replaced by an acceptance that his siblings must step up to the plate… “Because your brother’s too busy revising.”

One friend, a mother of four boys, even admitted that she and her husband swapped bedrooms with their eldest son for the last few months before his exams.

“Apparently his room was too small to spread all his revision notes around,” she said. Another gave up her part-time job when her daughter was on study leave. “She told me she just liked having me around… which was ironic, as she then ended up going to a friend’s house to study every day…”

It’s amazing what a hot topic exam stress is, and techniques to keep teenagers’ noses to the grindstone are ten-a-penny at the water cooler in most offices at this time of year. One colleague confessed, “I’ve offered my eldest £100 per A grade, and a holiday to Florida – and he’s still completely unmotivated!”, while a fellow writer told me, “My neighbour is sending her youngest and husband away for the May half term so her eldest can have quiet time to study...”

There’s also a huge rise in the number of parents employing private tutors – and not just for GCSEs and A Level. A recent national newspaper feature on the increasing pressure on grammar school places was full of tales of parents starting 11-plus tutoring sessions for three-year-olds.

Which isn’t as ridiculous as it sounds. As Janette Wallis of the Good Schools Guide, explained, “We regularly see parents who are suffering from heart palpitations, or battling with sleeping bill dependencies because of the strain of the 11 plus. We’ve even met parents on the brink of divorce because of the stress of getting a grammar school place.”

In a desperate effort to physically see my son working, I did contact a Maths Tutor – a month before his first exam – with the intention of book a weekly slot, in daylight hours. Except I couldn’t because he was fully booked from 6am (probably seeing Emily) until 10pm every night.

A quick calculation of the tutor’s weekly earnings (from £40 to £100 an hour) puts him on par with the average Premiership footballer and he doesn’t even have to leave his own front room. Now there’s a career. But you do need to pass your exams for it.

Exams have now become big business… from the hundreds of pounds we all spend on those posh Revision Guides (panic ordered from Amazon Prime at the eleventh hour, only to remain untouched) and the numerous items of stationery equipment vital for ensuring the Exam Revision Timetable is colour-coded – to the gin for the parents (plus the self-help manuals designed to keep us off the gin).

I definitely don’t remember myself – or my working parents – being in the least bit stressed a few decades ago during the exam season. In fact, the only bit of advice my Mum gave me as I headed off on the bus (no lift to the school gate in our day) to sit my first multiple-choice O Level was, “If in doubt, put B.”

It was a handy tip, and I tried to pass on to my own son – except he had his earphones in... and was asleep.

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