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Home > Culture and Society

Special consideration

15 May 2005

New guidelines set out this week by the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) stipulate that in the future, pupils taking exams in times of personal hardship may have a few extra per cent added to their overall grade, partly just to cheer them up a bit, partly to attempt to balance out the horrid hand dealt them by a cruel and callous god. Isn't that nice? No-one could possibly piss and moan abut that, surely?

Enter Nick Seaton, chairman of the pressure group, Campaign for Real Education. Mr Seaton is not in favour of the move. He believes that it 'panders to the growing attitude in society that there is an excuse for everything. Youngsters should realise that bad things happen in life and it is important to deal with them.' He accepts that when a pupil is 'particularly distressed... a teacher can scribble a note on the exam paper, as happened in the past. But formalising and quantifying excuses in this way sends out the wrong message.'

There can be no doubt - that Nick Seaton is a hard, hard man. But he may well have a point. Claire Ellis of the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance (AQA) - which along with a bunch of other wholly necessary governing bodies, comprises the JCQ - has been charged with publicly defending the guidelines. She insists that pupils claiming 'special consideration' would be asked to prove their claim, so it wouldn't just be a case of pupils listing trauma and expecting a result-hike. But would they really insist on seeing a death certificate? It would seem a bit callous. But of course wholly necessary.

As to Seaton's point about already having a system in place to deal with the problem of traumatised examinees, Ms Ellis, surprisingly, couldn't agree more. It is 'nothing new', she admits. In the past, when a pupil has barely been able to complete an essay on the vital importance of being earnest because only that morning their grandmother had a lung removed, any invigilator worth his or her salt would scribble a mitigating note on the offending exam paper. Something like: 'Nan lost lung - +3%.' So, one is forced to wonder, what the devil is the point in formalising it so?

We have no idea. However, under the guidelines, there exists a trauma table, with the specific hardship of the pupil listed next to the percentage points it is deemed to deserve. A little like Top Trumps. So, for the recent death of a parent or close relative, a pupil can get an extra 5%. The recent death of distant family member is worth 4%. (And as any schoolchild knows, distant family members are especially useful.) Any pupil who has witnessed something as vague and universally applicable as 'a distressing event' on day of exam will gain an extra 3%. Students suffering from hay fever, 2%. Death of family pet on day of exam, 2%. Pet dies day before exam, 1%. Headache: 1%. We haven't made any of this up.

Apart from giving wily pupils something to aim for, the problem with drawing up lists is that the permutations are infinite. For example, what happens when some poor sod witnesses a parent or close relative confessing to a childhood sex trauma before setting fire to him or herself and three of his or her siblings at a pet's funeral? That's presumably worth something in the region of about 12%. Indeed, under the new guidelines it may be possible for a particularly unfortunate pupil to actually pass an exam without putting pen to paper.

In reality, all they really need to do is make everyone involved in the marking of examinations aware that mitigating circumstances might be rewarded with an extra percentage or two. Which, as everyone involved agrees, they already do. So, in conclusion, these new guidelines are nothing more than a giant waste of time and money.



Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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