Dilemmas: Deadly wisdom for Desmond

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When you regard yourself as a normal irresponsible young person, being asked by a sober adult to give mature advice to someone even younger and more irresponsible than yourself puts you into an incredible double bind.

Desmond, who was barely out of university and no great brain-slave, found himself in this position when he was asked to give his 15-year-old nephew, Tom, advice on how to pass his GCSEs.

I have to say my heart sank when I read the dry, sensible advice from experienced exam- passers. I couldn't imagine someone like Desmond being able to pass on such immensely dull instruction with a straight face. I could also imagine the glazed look on Tom's face when he received such deadly wisdom from his hero.

Suzie Burrell, 17, of Billingshurst, West Sussex, offered some basic suggestions: look at old papers, see what you did wrong in your mocks, write information on postcards, take regular breaks, don't panic, see the exam as a challenge. And, similarly, Vandra Hereward ('BA, MA, PhD etc'), of London E7, passed on her three secrets of exam-passing: 'One, question- spotting; two, a realistic revision schedule rigorously adhered to; and three, taking the day off before the exam.'

Anne Crocker, of Bath, having warned, rightly, that 'no amount of 11th-hour effort will make up for deficiencies in the previous 10 hours' got a lot warmer, I felt, when she advised that Desmond's best contribution would be his time. 'Most teenagers of my family have one request: 'Please, will you test me on this?' Which means a quick oral session on short retention of specific units of learning.'

My own advice to Desmond is that he should try to teach Tom the one subject that schools so rarely do, which is how to pass exams. We all know geniuses who fail exams and dunces who pass, but assuming Tom is of average intelligence and has been reasonably taught, there is no reason why he shouldn't pass, too. Desmond should regard the whole caper as a hilarious challenge.

First, Desmond and Tom should pinpoint the subjects that need revision. For instance, languages, apart from vocabulary, and even some maths, cannot be revised easily. Then Desmond should take his nephew to a good bookshop and, reassuring him, rightly, that his teachers would disapprove highly of what they are about to do, he should buy him a series of study aids on all the subjects he is taking. These gems can reduce whole periods of history to mere lists (10 reasons for the Wars of the Roses) and turn Chaucer into simple, modern reads. Clearly these are not the sort of books to learn from, but, having learnt, great aids to passing exams.

And, however teachers may disapprove of them, they do teach the kind of logic and understanding needed in answering exam questions.

They should read them through together - preferably cracking jokes the while - and Desmond could help Tom make his own revision notes from these and from what he knows; once Tom has his subjects beautifully reduced to a small series of postcards, from which he can create his own mnemonics, he will find his revision will take no more than an hour or two to refresh on the day before the exam.

If Desmond is feeling saint- like, he should read Tom's set books and discuss them with him, enthusing over the ones he likes and groaning over the ones he finds dull.

Paul McAlister, of Metz, in France, wrote: 'With the full burden of parental hopes and expectations hanging on children like millstones, exams take on an emotional charge out of all proportion to their importance or difficulty. Young people have to overcome not only their fear of personal failure, but also their fear of letting down their parents and teachers. They lose sight of their own interest in doing well and get into feeling that they are doing it all for someone else's benefit, resulting in resentment and digging-in of heels. Hence the vicious circle of procrastination and parental admonition.'

Turning the learning of exam-passing into a kind of underground movement - 'For God's sake, don't let on to your teachers that we bought these study aids]' - would make the whole dreadful business more fun, give Tom more control and, in the end, make him feel more confident and relaxed. Which, of course, is the real aim.

And as Desmond admits to only scraping through his exams, some honesty about the parties and concerts he went to, or the football he played when he should have been revising, would make him a real ally of Tom's.

As Ms Burrell rightly commented: 'The most important thing to remember is success in exams is not the only thing in life.' Mind you, it might be easier for her. She got 11 A- passes in her GCSEs last year. And she's going to Oxford.

Dear Virginia,

My son is six and is crazy about playing detectives. When we go to the park with his friends they are always 'shooting' each other. My partner and I have tried to bring our son up without any sexist overtones, but it seems the influence of school has got the better of us.

Neither my partner nor I are very happy with these sorts of games, but now my parents have told me they have bought him a toy gun for his birthday. I feel it is very wrong to give children toy guns. What should we do?

Yours sincerely, Gwen

Send your comments and suggestions to me at Features Department, The Independent, 40 City Road, London EC1Y 2DB; fax 071-956 1739, by Tuesday morning. And if you have any dilemmas of your own that you would like to share with readers, let me know. I will report back next Thursday.

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