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Monday, June 30, 2008 

Learning by example.

Churnalism or not, the story of the examiner who gave two marks to a candidate that simply wrote "fuck off" in answer to a question is getting some rather unfair criticism.

I mean, let's be sensible for a second. Are we certain that the person taking the exam isn't a blogger? Who could possibly demure that telling individuals to "fuck off" via posts on the internet cannot at times be incredibly witty? Considering that one of the doyens of the blogging scene has come to much attention via the fact that he consistently comes up with new ways to call someone a fucking cunt, who are we to judge what is and what isn't worthy of marks at the GCSE stage?

Besides which, the examiner and the board are completely right in the view that if some sort of effort has been made to answer a question, regardless of its apparent inadequacy and wrongness, it still deserves to be given consideration. Let's also face it: at least the candidate bothered to turn up for the exam, whilst most of the others with a similar mindset would have done the opposite. In the circumstances, the candidate deserves to be applauded for overcoming the fear of failure for not even attempting a cogent answer, and when the youth of today have such glorious examples to learn from, just why are we so surprised when the first thing they can think of is to fire off an expletive? If he hadn't filled in any response, he most likely would have received a 'U', or ungraded. Instead, he might have achieved a 'G'. Under this glorious New Labour government, I think that's an achievement we can all be proud of.

Update: This post wasn't meant entirely seriously. QT takes issue not so much with me but with Patrick Vessey, whose point I'm more than sympathetic towards. Of all the questions you could be asked, and all the things you could be asked to describe in a GCSE English exam, being asked to tell the examiner what the room you're in looks like has to rank as one of the most unimaginative, banal and downright boring things that could have been raised. It's not just the students you have to feel for, it's also the individuals at the other end, the ones that have to mark them. Being forced to read hundreds if not thousands of descriptions of dank, dismal, suffocating dirt brown gym and PE halls is not something I'd like to do; by comparison, the more pithy response of "fuck off" would come almost as a relief.

The issue isn't so much with the exam board, which was just following things to the letter, but with the process which brought the student to writing "fuck off" instead of going through the motions. Most, as stated, would have simply either written their name on the paper and stopped there, or not even done that. There was a possibly apocraphyl story which went round when I was at school that writing your name on the paper got you a couple of marks, so it isn't just answering with expletives that potentially gets you points. This was a one-off blown out of proportion, but the real question is why so many accept or even celebrate their failure. One of the most fascinating sociological studies into the acceptance of failure was Paul Willis's Learning to Labour, which although conducted in the late 70s is still a seminal and influential text. A modern reanalysis and study of whether the same factors are still at work (from my own experience, I would suggest they most certainly are) would perhaps help with the debate. My own contention has always been that the lack of opportunities for vocational training, or when it is available, is considered by teachers and employers alike as either a "soft option" or as not equivalent to GCSEs or A-Levels has been at the heart of the problem of underachievement amongst some. The hope was that diploma system would do something to alter this, but with the current problems which seem to be plauging their introduction, this seems less likely. Despairing or over emphasising the lack of respect or collapse in standards this case apparently reflects doesn't seem much of an answer to me; understanding why is far more important and essential.

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Is this a wind-up? I wrote out a long reply but by the time I got to the end of the post I figured I must have been whooshed.

That GCSE marking guide in full -

Candidate manages to show up - Grade F;
Candidate makes some pen marks on answer paper - Grade E;
Said pen marks resemble a known alphabet - Grade D
Said alphabet forms some recognisable words - Grade C;
<50% of said words bear some relation to the questions - Grade B;
<75% of said words bear some relation to the questions - Grade A;
>75% of said words bear some relation to the questions - Grade A*.

Caught a blip on TV about how there was a whole grade difference in difficulty between the hard sciences and the soft sciences; didn't surprise the reporters at all.

Half mockery, half approaching serious.

Actually, flipc,

0 marks out of 27 = Fail
1 mark out of 27 = Fail
2 marks out of 27 = Fail
3 marks out of 27 = Fail

and so on all the way up to 10. It's a difference that's very, very unlikely to make a difference.

My memories of GCSEs were just about recent enough for something else to occur to me about this story.

The question "Describe the room you are sitting in" won't have been compulsory, it will have been one possibility out of a choice of 3 or 4.

The past paper concerned isn't up yet on the AQA site, but the previous one (GCSE English, Paper 2, November 2007) gives the candidate a choice of:

1) Inform the examiner about what you are really like.
2) Explain what you intend to achieve in the next year and explain how you intend to achieve
these things.
3) Describe the view from your bedroom window.
4) Your local council is planning to develop a Youth Centre in your area. Write a letter to the
leader of the council. Explain why a Youth Centre is a good idea and give information about
the facilities and events you would like to have.

The one we're talking about sounds like this year's equivalent of #3.

I very much doubt the format has changed much in this year's paper (it was like that when I was doing GCSEs back in '99).

So the argument that it was a bad question and therefore deserved the response we're talking about simply doesn't wash.

@Ian_QT - Yeah a choice or "Answer at least 3 of the questions"

"Explain why a Youth Centre is a good idea" Fascists, why can't I write a letter explaining why the Youth Centre is a bad idea ;-)

I'm still demoraised by my 0 for an essay on 'modern youth culture' in the 80s because it had some swear words and phrases like 'You're about as much use as second hand bog roll.'
Good old Grammar School. Roddy Doyle would've been F****d!
I wouldn't mind, someone got 14 out of 20 for something approaching Jeeves and Wooster dialogue.
Anyway, didn't Churchill write nothing in an entrance exam? Maybe urban myth.

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