This year is a long dreaded year in our family. I knew it was coming when I had my second child in 1998. Two children, two years apart - that meant the time would come when we would have them sitting major examinations at the same time, both asking to be let off chores, both feeling the stress...
Hormones are enough to cope with but then add GCSEs/A levels on top - who thought that was a good idea?
As an involved type of parent on the Arts side (I'm a liability when it comes to Maths or any of the science subjects) - I have been looking at past papers and timetables. It will probably come as no news to you that there is a debate as to whether exams are 'dumbed down' in the UK from the experience of previous generations. Many readers of this blog work in education so will be all too familiar with this dispute. This post isn't so much about that, though I do have a view which I'll put out for comment at the end. No, what it prompted me to ponder was just what is the longer history of exams? When did it begin to be thought of as a good way of sorting out the educational sheep from the goats?
I suppose the first requirement of a society to have examinations (beyond the obvious one of begin developed enough to have an education system) is to believe it desirable to appoint people on merit rather than through a hereditary principle. Your king can become one because his dad sat on the throne but you wouldn't want your doctor to operate on you for gallstones just because his father had done the odd operation or two. No sir, you want to know he has practised and studied for himself.
Many ancient civilisations had exams for young men to pass - that surely was the seed of the Olympics - a competition for all kinds of skills. However, for the start of my history of exams, I was thinking of a national, written test in a form that modern school children would recognise.
So if the Chinese get the prize as the society with the longest exam history, who has the most extreme? This is a matter of opinion - medical training comes to mind - but for pure torture, I think BUD/S training for US Navy Seals might be up there - 6 months of basic underwater demotion/seal training. It includes the aptly named 'Hell Week' when they try to put off recruits by pushing them to the edge and beyond their limits. It fits my description because there is some paperwork among the physical torment. And I thought my week of finals at Cambridge was bad.
And what about the most brain teasing exam in history? I think this might go to All Soul's in Oxford who have a long an honourable tradition of interesting examinations. The exam is held to select two Prize Fellows to hold their position for seven years. I was just looking through the past papers and they are a hoot - especially the General Knowledge paper. One question is 'Devise a new punctuation mark - and defend it.' I'd love to sit an exam like that - a bit like wandering into Alice in Wonderland.
What do you think?