My daughter starts a new school this month, to do A-levels. The household feels it has barely recovered from an intense summer of GCSEs. She feels the same, and she actually sat them. But no one passes through the demented circus of the public examination system entirely alone any more. Teachers, parents, siblings, grandparents, random passers-by – everyone is drawn into the drama.
When I was doing my O-levels, I think my parents were vaguely aware that something of the sort was going on. I dimly remember being told that if I didn't pass them all with flying colours, I would probably have to get a job down a mine, but I didn't let that worry me. There weren't a lot of mines in north London.
These days we all have an opinion about GCSEs, often an unfavourable one. They're either too hard, or too easy; too middle-class, or nowhere near middle-class enough. But the mock exams I saw seemed rather well formed, and my daughter will thump anyone who suggests that she wasn't sufficiently tested by the process. In the end she worked pretty hard for them: not quite as hard as one or two of her friends, maybe, but harder than I ever did, or could do now.
After the last exam, then, we all trooped off to the school's "celebration evening" – or prom, as everyone but the head teacher called it. The ceremony was held in a deconsecrated church and lasted several hours. Every single child received a certificate. If popular, they were cheered. If clever, they shook the visiting celebrity's hand to a silence deeper than the Marianas Trench. All the parents were instantly transported back to their own schooldays, either to the triumph of being universally admired for their swagger and bravado, or to the misery of not being.
I went to a boys' school, marginally posher than my daughter's comprehensive, and for a number of years I believed implicitly that the only important attribute a boy and, thereafter, a man needed in life was physical strength. I didn't have any, and was made to suffer as a consequence. These wounds scab over but I'm not sure they ever entirely heal. As I watched the popular boys and girls being cheered and taking those cheers as their due, I found to my surprise that I hated them to the very core of my being.
At my school it was the worst bullies who were made prefects, which at the time I thought a terrible injustice, although it turned out simply to be a template for adulthood. Public life in Britain seems to be inhabited mainly by bullies and the bullied, the former finding to their delight that the world confirms them in their self-esteem, and the latter still trying to make up for everything that happened to them at school. Was Jeremy Clarkson a bully or the bullied? What about Piers Morgan? How about George Osborne? I think we have a reasonable idea about each.
At the "celebration evening", as our children collected their certificates, the boys in ill-fitting suits and the girls cleaving to a dress template essentially defined by RuPaul, we parents clapped approvingly and tried to forget that, in the long run, the GCSE results will make less difference to our precious babies' lives than whether or not they were cheered on to the stage. Afterwards, the children went upstairs to dance the night away, while the parents, haggard and drained, went to the pub over the road and bought wine by the bottle. µ
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