Exams and Sweat

Memories of end-of-year school exams.

Twenty or thirty very sweaty kids stuck within the hermetic smelly confines of a school classroom that has already absorbed an entire year of teenage bodily odours.The windows have never been opened and the whole room is a living shrine to the great unwashed. So, I took my secondary school leaving exams in 1984 – this was long before the « shower-a-day » culture – one bath and one shirt a week was quite enough. I went to one of those curiously English institutions – the private school – even in the « sweltering »  heat of an English summer we had to wear blazer, shirts and ties in the exam room. Occasionally you might get a young Master, prone to seasonal striptease who might allow the candidtaes to divest themselves of their polyester blazers, loosen their ties and perhaps even undo the top button of their shirt – mind you, once the exam striptease had been performed, it only maade matters worse – by keeping on the blazer, all bodily odours were contained. Sure you boiled away in your own sweat, but you didn’t have to share everyone elses’s stink. So, you’ve guessed it, this post is about end-of-year exams, which are probably easier in France, because there is no such thing as school uniform, and you can  turn up for exams in garish bermuda shorts and flip flops if you so desire, no one gives a toss, the important thing is to « be there. »

On reflection it has been a very philosophical day for the 600,000 or so final year French school high shcool students sitting their  Baccalauréat – that being the name of the French high school diplôma.

France being France, the Baccalauréat is a highly centralised exam – with all candidates sitting the same subject on the same day at the same time. This morning, the week long session of Baccalauréat exams kicked off  with the philosophy paper. That’s right, in the country that gave the world Diderot, Descartes, Rousseau and others of that ilk, all kids study philosophy in their final year at school. No matter the major – maths, sciences, languages or history, the study of philosophy is an intergral component of the final school year. Depending on their major, high school students  can spend anywhere from two to four hours a week coming to grips with  « les grands philosophes » – And it has been that way since Napoleon Bonaparte himself introduced philosophy on to the curriculum in 1803.

With average national températures  in the low to mid 30 degrees celsius today, it has been far too hot to think, let alone spend four hours in an exam room scribbling away at philosophy essays.

The question asked of candidates in this year’s philosophy paper was …

“Peut-on agir moralement sans s’intéresser à la politique ?”.

Roughly translated, this comes out as « Can one act morally without gtting involved in politics ? »

Any thoughts ?

Well in the exam room, temperatures are soaring and the confines of the classroom are beginning to reek just a little of bodily odours brought on by over-thinking.  Candidates though are not obliged to sweat it out for the full four-hour stint – they can leave after an hour, and after they have left ????  This is where the cheating begins.  Once the exam subjects are ripped open and sitributed to the candidates, there are,those teachers in the pay of the nation’s media who text the subject to other teachers, who then write the essay, then e-mail it to a newspaper or a TV channel, who then whack the answers up on the Internet roughly 90 minutes after the start of the official exam. At this point, those candidates with pressing bodily needs, leave the exam room to go to the toilet. They are of course accompanied by a teacher, however, in that monely room, where the sun never shines, the candidates who are supposed to excrete, have actually secreted a mobile phone. They then nip on to the internet,  dowload the flawless answers from the national media and text the results to their mates in the exam room. Of course mobile phones are vbanned from exam rooms but, where there is a will there is a way – well, you can guess the rest.

Such are the levels of cheating in some exam centres, that, the  Powers-That-Be have called for the installation of mobile phone jammers – however the use of such a dispositive would mean the jamming of all mobile phone signals in a radius of several hundred metres around the exam centre – such an action would Knock out a lot of  « innocent » mobile phones. As a sop, the education authorities have agreed to install mobile phone detectors in exam centres. Such technology (at laest the version used by the French education authorities can work within the exam  room, but t’s not sure if it wil actually reach the toilets.

Anyway, on this day when French students have started their high school leaving exams, the very prestigious OECD have published statistics that put France in 21st position on internatioan educational league tabels in terms of reading, writing and basic maths – French  primary school kids can’t read, write or count – at laest they can’t do it as well as the Koreans, the Japanese or the Chinese.

Oh dear, I see thsese disastrous statistics and then I think of the long hours that my daughter spent at primary school learning the « basics » and then I think of all those long, fraught homework hours where my offspring had to learn tortuously long lists of French verb conjugations and equally twisted grammar rules .

I would put bad French results down to several factors.

There is already too damn much to learn in primary school.

Every year the éducation ministry adds yet another subject to learn

Foreign language teaching should not start at the age of four. You shopuld not learn to speak a foreign language until you know the basics of your own language.

The bulk of French primary school taechers are maths graduâtes and they teach all subjects  in the same way that they taech maths.

The élite French éducation system creams off the best graduâtes for jobs in finance or industry, laeving taeching as a « second choice » for best graduâtes and the only choice for médiocre graduâtes.

The French system is a fully somprehensice system which constanty seks out the owest common demoninator as the typical classroom model, whilst in class, teachers move at the pace of the « best students ».

On the other hand, what makes French éducation quite decent is the political consistency. I always have the greatest problems keeping abreats of the ever-changing, politically generated, éducation system in England. In France, the basic system and its aims have not changed much for the past 50 years.

Finally, back at the finals

When I think back to my final year school exams, I can’t actually remember spending as long as four hours in any exam, mind you, shorter exams meant a far longer exam period. A-Levels seemed to go on forever and the results seemed to take equally long to get published. In France, the written exams are all over in a week, and any students sitting oral exams in languages or practical exams in sciences, have already done those  in May.  And when the exams are over, thousands of the nation’s teachers will be mobilised to correct the papers. The results will be out for the end of June. A week of resits follows and by the end of the first week in July it is all over and we can all head for the beach.  And as for university ? In France universities are all free (no tuition fées). Once you get your exam results, you nipa long to your local university and sign up for the course you want. No sélection, no clearing, no fées. Come September though, you might ne a few hundred peopel on the same course – book early for your place at the first lecture.

As a final thought on those exams of old in the “one bath a week” 1980’s – we all had yellow armpits. Decent deoderant had not been invented. Now you can sweat it out for tow days without even the slightest trace of fungus under your arms – in the mid eighties though – your deodorant  would melt and disappear like snow in the Sahara, leaving bigger armpit skidmarks  than a biker on a burn out.