Hugh Reilly: Testing times for pupils and patience

The SQA exams started last week. It is a period in the academic calendar when the SQA affords pupils the opportunity to show off their knowledge and skills.
Hugh Reilly. Picture: Robert PerryHugh Reilly. Picture: Robert Perry
Hugh Reilly. Picture: Robert Perry

As they flock outside the assembly hall minutes before the examination begins, peacocking, hardworking students exhibit faux-angst lest they exacerbate the overwhelming suicidal ideation of lazy lame-duck learners whose hopes of SQA success flew south several months ago.

Tradition demands the examination diet eases itself in gently by kicking off with a novelty subject few youngsters study. Standard Grade Classical Studies is this year’s Shetland pony struggling to jump over half-metre fences at the Horse of The Year Show, the effort receiving insincere sympathetic applause from candidates champing at the bit to begin the serious stuff. English and Maths are always at the front end of the exam schedule, testimony to the high-octane status they enjoy among pupils, parents and school management.

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My own subject, Modern Studies, is usually towards the fag-end of proceedings, a fact that demoralised many Modies staff. However, as a glass half-full kinds guy, I took much comfort that other subjects were regarded with even greater disdain. This year’s wearer of a bespoke hair shirt is Higher Early Education and Childcare, a national examination I confess I never knew existed. In my view the SQA leadership is to be commended for creating a qualification designed purely for the failing-school market.

Of course, the SQA happening could not take place without the help of invigilators, that incestuous Dad’s Army comprised of ex-teachers, family and friends of ex-teachers and retirees who play golf with members of the school management team. Invigilating is not a job for a young man, hence most resemble disorientated service-users on the run from a nearby residential home after somehow getting hold of the exit door code.

To be fair, in my experience these education heroes take their task extremely seriously. Binaural hearing aids are set to the maximum a human ear can take without bursting the drum in order to listen out for the sound of mobile phone chatter.

Were it not for the sterling endeavours of teachers, examination scripts would hold the allure of recycled toilet paper. I salute those teachers who selflessly give their time, for little financial reward, to mark the work of examinees.

I did it once, way back when my fertile ex-wife produced a fourth voracious mouth to feed. It was hell on earth. By day, I was teaching excitable rapscallions and, instead of looking forward to my normal winding down routine, that is, sinking six pints of Guinness and passing out on the sofa, I faced the horror of correcting the scribblings of anonymous hopefuls.

Evaluating the worth of bright students was child’s play, as was marking the labours of those who should never have been presented for the examination. However, it proved very time consuming and stressful to appraise a paper written in a peculiar style that required the unearthing of another Rosetta Stone to understand its meaning.

At the start of this marathon, I was a liberal chalkie, steadfastly acting like an Enigma code breaker, giving students the benefit of the doubt. I have to admit that after several nights of painfully slow progress in reducing the pile of examination scripts, I morphed into Attila the Hun, slashing my pen through any illegible nonsense put before me.

Unlike a tiny minority of SQA markers, although very tempting, I did not take a sickie to avail me of quality time to mark papers. In one school, I recall just missing out on the staff room sweep to guess when a particular teacher would hit the canvas. Call it serendipity, but the dying relatives my colleague had to take time off school to care for always chose April and May to be their last hurrah with life. Somewhat perturbingly, the impotent headteacher was unwilling to confront the slacker for fear of upsetting his trade union.

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After this present diet, Standard Grade goes the way of extras hired to do walk-on-be murdered roles in Taggart. The format lasted 25 years, as long as my marriage, with the same fateful conclusion. Time will tell if the new Curriculum for Excellence qualifications are as durable. I think not.

My sincere best wishes to the students and teachers who have worked so hard throughout the year. Carpe diem!