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Events, exams, and Pentecost

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Blog - Events, exams, and Pentecost

Sunday 12 June 2011

In theory last week should have been the quietest week in the school year, because three year groups – years 11, 12 and 13 – were all on ‘study leave’.  Needless to say, it didn’t feel like that!  Not only were there lots of these students in school for exams, private revision, or to see teachers or attend organized revision sessions, but also the stream of events which characterizes school life did not slow down.

Some of the ‘events’ I refer to are organized, such as meetings and the like, but others are unpredictable events which need to be handled by staff in school, the more serious ones by senior staff.  Sometimes people ask me why I don’t describe in more detail some of the things I do each day.  The answer to this is simple: I spend a significant amount of time dealing with things that happen to individual students, staff, families and others, and obviously that sort of personal information cannot be put in the public domain.  Every organization employing people of course has unpredictable events to deal with.  When the majority of the people in the community are those going through adolescence and learning to be adults, it is to be expected that there are many more such events.  The other odd thing that always happens in schools is that when year 11 leaves, year 10 students somehow ‘shuffle up’ to take their place, and all the things which happened with year 11 suddenly start happening with the next year group down!

Mistakes in public exams have been very much in the news this past week or so.  Not all of them have directly affected Bennett students, because there are four main exam boards offering most subjects and each sets its own exams in each subject.  A couple of the well publicized mistakes have affected our students, notably Business Studies AS, and I have written to the boards responsible to express our concern.  It is of course unacceptable that these mistakes occur, and they can be worrying and distracting for students.   However, it is important to remember that all candidates all over the country are in exactly the same boat, so our candidates are not unduly disadvantaged in comparison with others.

The reason why this kind of thing happens is because we have a massively overblown public examinations industry in this country which creaks at the joints every summer with the sheer volume of exams taken and marked.  It also costs the country a fortune: our examinations bill, for entry fees mainly, exceeds £100,000 per year.  Multiply this by three or four thousand for all the secondary schools in the country and you have some idea of the size of this industry.  Exam boards are multi-million pound businesses; Edexcel, for example, the one based in London, is part of Pearson, and international publishing company.  there is sometimes an unhealthy link between exam specifications brought out by this board, and ‘recommended’ textbooks to go with the specification published by – yes, Pearson, of course.  There are other ways of doing it.  Countries elsewhere in Europe which do as well as or better than England in international studies spend a fraction of what we spend by relying on formal assessments done in school by teachers.  Moreover, one has to wonder how we got in a situation where for the last three years of secondary school, years 11, 12 and 13, we have major public exams each year.  Surely once or even twice in that time would be sufficient?

Today is the feast of Pentecost, taken over by early Christians from the Jewish festival of the same name, when the Holy Spirit was given to the early followers of Jesus.  In most countries in Europe tomorrow, Monday, is a public holiday.  In Britain the date of the Whitsun (the ‘common’ English name for Pentecost) holiday was fixed in the 1960s at the last Monday in May, because Pentecost moves around like Easter, falling as it does 50 days after it.  Since then the bank holiday has become completely disassociated from the Christian festival.  Most of secular Britain, while just about knowing what Christmas and, to a lesser extent, Easter mark, would have no idea at all what Pentecost or Whitsun is.  In fact, it is one of the greatest celebrations of the Christian calendar, the start of the Church’s mission in the world.  If we are to continue that mission, which is in many ways as hard now as it was in the first century, we must maintain and nurture our Christian communities – not only churches, but other expressions of Christian community, such as Church schools – in the face of forces in our society at all levels for their secularization.  I touched on one aspect of this pressure when I wrote about my reaction to the Bishop of Oxford’s remarks on church school admissions back in April.