My daughter Eleanor sat her last GCSE paper yesterday – Chemistry – so I suppose it's now safe for me to admit in print that my seven O-level passes, acquired 31 years ago, have had no bearing whatever on my subsequent life. I suppose it might be helpful in an indefinable sort of way to look out of a plane window and recognise an oxbow lake, or to be aware that James I of England was none too keen on tobacco, or even to know that neon is one of the noble gases, but of what practical use, really, were all those hours of revision? Not to mention the even longer hours devoted to drawing up my revision timetable, an absolute masterpiece of coloured boxes and lines.
All of which rather begs the question of why I gave Eleanor a hard time for spending too many hours messaging her friends, or indeed watching Friends, when she could have been mugging up on the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. She has a stronger work ethic than I had at her age, and I'm sure she'll get a much finer set of exam results, yet there have been times these past few weeks when I paced the floors of our house like a prison guard, looking for incontrovertible evidence of revision-shirking. Still, I wasn't as tough as some other dads, by all accounts. We heard stories of teenagers being barricaded into their bedrooms, of regular screaming rows (Elly and I had only one of those), of all fun and even casual jocularity being banned, Taliban-style, until After The Exams.
My mother will read this column and smile, remembering the battles she and I had as my O-Levels approached. Back in those days, when a Mac was something your grandma wore to the shops, the only distraction was television. So my widowed mum asked Mr Williams from number 54 to put our set in his garage for a month, a strategy that didn't really work, because to watch The Sweeney and Top of The Pops I just used to go to the homes of my friends, whose parents hadn't implemented such draconian measures.
Maybe, if I'd worked harder at understanding chemical equations, I might have something clever to say about the strange alchemy that turns us into our parents, exam-wise. I didn't cart the telly away, but I did hide Eleanor's laptop. History repeats itself, to say nothing of Geography, Biology and Physics.
Still, in defence of my generation of anxious mums and dads, who plainly haven't learnt a thing from the traumas to which our own parents subjected us, preparing for exams is a valid life skill. It fosters discipline, focus, and a knowledge of how best to acquire a suntan while simultaneously digesting passages of Billy Liar. Moreover, the exam papers themselves prepare our kids for a lifetime of form-filling. Once they've overlooked the instruction to complete TWO questions from section A, and only ONE question from section B, instead answering every question in section A and mistaking section B for section C, they will stand a better chance with driving licence and mortgage applications.
My oft-repeated cautionary tale in this respect, repeated in these pages but not as oft as it is repeated to my children, concerns my old mate Rob Waggett, who emerged from our General Studies A-Level in the summer of 1980 ferociously indignant at what he considered to be five questions that were impossible to answer. Referring us to an attached map and railways timetable, and coincidentally relating to an area of England close to where I now live but was in those days unknown to me and all my Southport schoolfriends, the questions were all variations on whether it would be quicker for Mr Jones to get from Gloucester to Malvern by road, assuming an average speed of 40mph but a 25-minute hold up for roadworks on the A417, or for Mr Brown to get there by train, leaving his house at the same time, 7.45, but just missing the 08.24? "What did you make of those questions about Mr Jones and Mr bloody Brown going to Malvern?" Rob asked me. I said they were made easy enough by the map and the timetable. Rob looked aghast. "What map," he cried. "What bloody timetable?"
Eleanor embarked on her GCSEs with that story ringing in her ears. But I'm worried now that if she fails to get A-grades it will be because she spent too much time looking for maps and timetables that weren't there.