Hugh Reilly: Exams, the healthy face of education

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A MONDAY morning visit to my GP in the north-east of Glasgow – a somewhat ungentrified quarter of the country’s most impoverished city – is always something of a chastening experience.

The hypochondriacs’ HQ possesses all the ambience of a Crimean military hospital although, it has to be said, the anguished cries of soldiers undergoing emergency amputations at the frenzied hands of hacksaw-wielding surgeons were probably a tad quieter than the screams of feral toddlers and cackles of single mums into mobile phones.

To be fair, at least this band of walking wounded bother to turn up. Above the reception area, a huge sign informs the ill of the appalling number of their brethren who failed to keep an appointment that week.

Publicly humiliating people who are poorly is an outrage – the medical profession should hang its head in shame. Am I the only person who thinks it’s quite understandable that someone who is unwell and in need of NHS assistance forgets he has a date with a doctor? Medical practitioners seem to be unaware that many citizens like a long lie and thus forgo an ennui-inducing meeting that will only result in a diagnosis of their troublesome ailment. Others, faced with the awful dilemma of either watching Jeremy Kyle repeats or listening to a geeky quack droning on about the benefits of a healthy lifestyle, reach for the remote.

Clearly, the blame for this dreadful state of affairs lies with GPs. Family doctors have much to learn from our education system, which opts to support the most vulnerable. In many schools, when a pupil fails to present himself for an SQA examination, the school management team swings into action, hailing a taxi to pick up the candidate, or, in the worst case scenario, a deputy head uses his own car to rush the student to the assembly hall. In days gone by, nobody gave a toss whether an examinee turned up or not but in this Golden Age of Education, statistics are paramount. Failure to round up recalcitrant students has a negative impact on a school’s indicators of success, hence the need for senior staff to hang around the school base like Second World War RAF pilots, ever ready to scramble if Jerry (or Tam or Boab or Senga) attempts to fly under the SQA radar.

But things may be about to change. Wearing its Ebenezer Scrooge hat, Edinburgh City Council has hinted it may fine the parents of children who absent themselves from national examinations. It costs a local authority about £30 per exam for each student put forward for SQA tests and Edinburgh wishes to recoup that from feckless mums and dads. I wish the authority every success but fear the council’s coffers will not be replenished.

For one thing, a monetary sanction will be imposed as a last resort. This offers lots of opportunities to invent plausible excuses such as illness, death of a close family member or being temporarily kidnapped by Martians. In the case of youngsters suffering debilitation on the day of an exam, a sick note from a doctor must be produced. Authentic medical lines were once as difficult to obtain as Bob Dylan’s autograph but the times they are a’changing. I’ve seen perfectly healthy specimens walk into school with a medical note that suggests a priest was on speed-dial the previous day when the teenager could not sit my Modern Studies exam due to an affliction. On one memorable occasion, a Scarlet Pimpernel Higher student solemnly told me that the death of her pet hamster had mentally destabilised her, the rodent’s unexpected demise causing her to throw a year of academic toil down the plughole.

Doubtless, some candidates genuinely sleep in or are victims of unforeseen circumstances, but what message do we send out to our youth when school bosses chauffeur kids to the examination desk? Edinburgh council is to be applauded for forcing parents to take responsibility for their issue. The fact that education is free should not mean it is to be treated with wanton disregard. It’s only anecdotal but in my experience the majority of youngsters who fail to appear are Standard Grade Foundation pupils. Arguably, by not showing up to sit this discredited exam – this is the final year of the “prize for everyone” Standard Grade circus – young people are actually exhibiting a degree of intelligence.

Fining parents, while undoubtedly controversial, may lead to a healthier examination diet.