Staff at the Taunton Times went back to school in an experiment that put professional credibility on the line.
In the Testing Times feature, six members of staff, including the editor, deputy editor and news editor, sat GCSE papers to challenge the claim the exams are easier than ever.
Editor Debbie Rundle said: “School pupils are always getting a hard time these days. If they do well at their GCSEs, old fogeys say the exams are getting easier – if they do badly, they say standards are dropping and kids are spending too much time watching TV or playing on the PlayStation.
“Every year, as schools celebrate their GCSE results, the floodgates open for a barrage of criticism aimed at the education system and the pupils who clutch the brown envelopes that hold their fate.
“After months of revision, coursework, mocks and hours spent in sports halls facing dozens of exams, pupils are forced to see their hard-earned qualifications dismissed by claims that the tests are easier than ever.”
So rather than sit on the sidelines and report the annual debate between teachers’ unions, Government ministers and business leaders, the Taunton Times team decided to put themselves in the firing line.
If GCSEs really are getting easier, six members of staff could easily pass one of these devalued exams – or so the theory goes.
News editor Matt Chorley and reporter Ruth Lumley, aged 21 and 23 respectively, sat their maths exam first – and piled on the pressure with their results.
Alyson Stoodley and Matt Chorley
Matt was top of the maths class with an impressive 74 per cent – a B grade and the top grade possible for the intermediate paper. Meanwhile Ruth gained a respectable C grade with 49 per cent.
Features editor Alyson Stoodley and sports editor Chris Marke (the thirtysomethings) did not embarrass themselves as both had feared.
Alyson was one of the first to take the new GCSEs in the summer of 1988, whilst Chris was the last to take the ‘O’ Level – and both scored almost identical results in the experiment despite the fact that neither of them had sat an exam for more than ten years.
Alyson got 44 per cent and Chris 42 per cent – both D grades.
But going straight to the top of the class were the “more mature” members of staff – editor Debbie Rundle and deputy editor Jon Hancock.
They both sat an English language paper, and with professional respect at stake they rose to the challenge. Showing everyone how it should be done Debbie was awarded an impressive A* – the top grade possible while Jon received an A grade despite mis-reading a whole question.
The impressed examiner commented “you answered the question that should have been asked”.
Then in a special feature this week the six guinea pigs gave their own account of the experience – from the stony silence of the exam hall to the discomfort of writing for two hours; from the fear of failure to the admiration of those pupils preparing to sit the real thing next summer.
Deputy editor Jon Hancock said: “Exam nerves? You bet. Seasoned hacks sitting English language papers have everything to lose and nothing to gain.
“Did I enjoy it? Well, yes – and no. Ninety minutes’ handwriting without respite brought howls of protest from tendons that were pensioned off 20 years ago when shorthand notes were mothballed in favour of life as a keyboarding sub. I’m not used to going that long without coffee, either.”
News editor Matt Chorley said: “As for the question of exams getting easier – it will never be easy to sit among hundreds of pupils and stare at a page with a blank mind.
“All those sitting exams have my respect and if I can have anything for Christmas it will be that I am never faced with the phrase: Now draw a box plot with this data.”
Reporter Ruth Lumley said: “I don’t think I would put myself through it again, it could have turned out to be pretty humiliating. But at least I proved to myself that all those school maths lessons weren’t a waste of time after all.”
Features editor Alyson Stoodley: “As I waited nervously for the results, I reflected on the fact that I don’t think the exams are getting any easier, maybe teaching is getting better. Has anyone thought of that?”
Sports editor Chris Marke said: “The experience has not awakened any great enthusiasm for the strange world of mathematics, but my old teachers can take some satisfaction in the knowledge that their efforts were not entirely wasted.”
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