Tales Of The City: It's enough to test any parent

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Well, thank God that's over. Biology was a lot tougher than I anticipated. I was taken by surprise by the English paper ("What is the function of the women characters in To Kill a Mockingbird?" Bugger me. Are there any grown-up women characters in To Kill a Mockingbird?). The Religious Studies paper was a breeze. French Conversation, on the other hand, was an absolute couchemar because we hadn't prepared a set-piece to talk about. Physics was a pig. And History - well, History was always going to be tricky because nobody, not even Charles Wheeler, really understands the Geopolitical Realignments of the Great Powers after 1950...

Well, thank God that's over. Biology was a lot tougher than I anticipated. I was taken by surprise by the English paper ("What is the function of the women characters in To Kill a Mockingbird?" Bugger me. Are there any grown-up women characters in To Kill a Mockingbird?). The Religious Studies paper was a breeze. French Conversation, on the other hand, was an absolute couchemar because we hadn't prepared a set-piece to talk about. Physics was a pig. And History - well, History was always going to be tricky because nobody, not even Charles Wheeler, really understands the Geopolitical Realignments of the Great Powers after 1950...

No, gentle reader, I have not been taking school exams. But boy, have I lived through every teeth-extracting minute of the GCSE revision and exam-sitting process. The past three weeks have been an ordeal of roller-coaster emotion: the teenage sulks, the bitter tears, the endless procrastination, the displacement activities - and that was just me. My poor child has been more cool about it, but even the most brutally efficient, colour-coded tyrant of organisation would have had a problem revising for so many exams with such a multiplicity of tools - schoolbooks, revision guides, CD-Roms, the snowdrift of random sheets of mimeographed info about Dietrich Bonhoeffer or the Marshall Plan, the poetry anthologies, the pages of quotations by Martin Luther King... When I attended a scholastic academy, we didn't have all this bewildering profusion of stuff. We had slate tablets and an abacus. Nor did we enjoy the modern convention that no 15-year-old can currently revise for anything without having The White Stripes blaring from the kitchen radio and her three best friends phoning the house every 10 minutes and pleading for information about the ionisation of bauxite.

Into this maelstrom of intellectual and emotional grief, Charles Clarke now proposes an additional refinement. He suggests testing children at 14 in every subject in the curriculum, to record their standards before they start on the GCSEs proper. Oh that's great. So we'll give the luckless teenagers the whole GCSE hell a year earlier and then make them do it again a year later. Note that Clarke's proposals don't suggest letting the children drop subjects at GCSE if they display no aptitude for them. Even if they fail them at 14, they'll have to take them again at 15. At least, this week, my daughter and I could both say, "Well, after today, I'll never have to read or write another word about Physics in my life." Clarke's proposals fail to realise that school tests are about something more than seeing if a machine works properly. Tests must have an effect on achievement. They must inspire an interest, a challenge, a desire to do better. Not a glum expectation of being made to feel ignorant time after time. All parents know the misery of a child who enters a Maths or Physics exam knowing he or she will do badly because they simply lack the gene for understanding trigonometry or protons. Making them endure another, earlier level of testing is simply a form of sadism. I don't think my nerves could stand it.

Hung up on the infernal combustion engine

Is something preying on Nigel Dempster's mind? His Tuesday gossip column in the Daily Mail was full of stories about driving, drinking and crashing. One concerned Prince Harry zooming out of Cirencester Park in a VW Golf "leaving a trail of dust" like his elder brother had done on Saturday. A second revealed that the Duke of Edinburgh nearly ran over a nightclub owner. In a third story, Dempster chatted to a broker called Simon about his post-party hangover. In a fourth, he recalled discovering the American Beauty dreamboat Mena Suvari at a polo match. "She was wandering near the Raffles marquee looking lost when I bumped into her," Dempster confided.

The poor man. His head must be ringing with the shock of his court appearance on Monday, when he was banned from driving for two years and fined £1,500 for crashing his car, on a pedestrian crossing near Ham Common, Surrey, while over the limit. The veteran diarist is clearly trying to put the embarrassment behind him, but it's all leaking out in his column. Stand by for more apparently meaningless stories about posh chaps driving too fast, chaps flooring too many Sea Breezes and chaps losing their money because of some frightful old bores in wigs.

Of course, when I said...

Backtrack of the week award goes to Signor Umberto Bossi, the Italian Minister for Reform in Silvio Berlusconi's administration, who came up with a solution to the current illegal-immigrant problem that is, incontrovertibly, reformist, not to say radical. The waves of boat-borne Third World migrants currently converging on Italy's long coastline should be shot out of the water. OK, then, they should first be warned that they're breaking the law. Then, "After the second or third warning, bang! We open fire. What we need is a cannonade to knock out whoever might be there. Otherwise we're never going to end this problem."

Well, even Bossi could see that he might have gone a bit far. Memories may have come back to him of the floating band of Jewish refugees that was disastrously turned away from coastlines all over the Mediterranean in 1939. He may have reflected that having some desperate immigrants heading for your beaches in little boats is not the same as having your country invaded by a hostile army and scarcely warrants cannon and machine-gun fire. So he made the best of it. "The interview published this morning," he blustered, "by no means reflects my thoughts, nor the sense of my replies in what was only a quick exchange of a few remarks."

Well done, Mr Bossi. To suggest that the words "Bang!" and "We open fire" are potentially ambiguous, and susceptible to innocent interpretations, is stretching language in a way Baron Munchausen himself would admire.

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