Exams are just a metaphor for the tests of life

Exams are just a metaphor for the tests of life

Some people of my generation (born in the 1940s) refer to young folk as “snowflakes”: fragile and likely to dissolve under stress.

This is unkind and mostly untrue. Most young people I meet are very nice, thoughtful and idealistic. But, certainly, they have been raised in a gentler and more protective way, and adulthood has been much delayed by a longer period of education, lasting well into their 20s. I began working at 16 and I knew many people who had started work at 14 or were in apprenticeships even earlier. In Britain, youths were called up for military service as mere teenagers and were soon square-bashing under the rough command of a sergeant-major shouting “you ‘orrible little man!” at them.


So the fact that 76% of Irish students recently surveyed think that the Leaving Cert exam is unfair, and prefer continuous assessment by the teachers who know them – to relieve exam “pressure and stress” – does seem just a little bit snowflakey.

Come along, darlings: life often is unfair. Moreover, life is also full of stress and pressure and you can’t always get your papers marked by the understanding teacher who knows your best qualities.

There will be times when you are up against a very hostile witness and you’ll have to deal with it. People won’t always appreciate your talents and knowledge, and opportunities will be lost because you didn’t get the right guidance. It’s rotten luck, but it happens.

An exam which has to be completed under disciplined conditions certainly is stressful and the questions that come up in an exam paper may not correlate with your best knowledge. But getting through it with competence and grace is a test of character. Preparing for the ordeal of a major exam, on which so much may hang, is excellent training in meeting life’s deadlines.

Exams are not just exams: they’re a metaphor of life’s experiences. The questions may take you by surprise. You should prepare for the unexpected. And there are some tests that are only given to you once – there never is a second chance.

I daresay the format for all examinations like the Leaving Cert needs to be reviewed from time to time, and no doubt the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals (who conducted the survey ‘Senior Cycle Reform – What Do You Want?’) will proceed to look at these findings with a fresh eye.

There are exceptions to every rule. There are students who have genuine mental health troubles and exams can trigger a breakdown. There should always be some consideration for cases of real mental fragility.

But exams are challenging because life is challenging: all our lives we are subjected to continual tests, some of which we fail, and some of which are unfair. We just have to face these tests, and practice, as best we can, the cardinal virtue of fortitude.


A truly ecumenical move would be welcome

Sir John Biggs-Davison was a Catholic Conservative Member of Parliament at Westminster who was always helpful to Ulster Unionist MPs when they attended the House of Commons. But when he died in 1988, the Unionists declined to attend the Requiem Mass of his funeral, on the grounds that they did not assist at Roman Catholic services.

Biggs-Davison’s daughter Lisl – he and his wife had six children – told me that the family were deeply hurt by the Ulster Unionists’ rebuff.

“He had supported them so much at Westminster.” Sir John was himself an old-style British Unionist, coming from a military family (a not unusual tradition among English Catholics).

Three decades later, and the present Northern Unionists, the DUP, now have another Catholic collaborator at Westminster, Jacob Rees-Mogg (also a father of six) who is supportive of their values and political ideology, even to the point of not showing much sympathy for his co-religionists in the North who would be on the other side of the great Brexit civil war.

But that’s where he stands in politics – like Biggs-Davison, a Catholic and a British Unionist. Ecumenism can take many forms!

Perhaps an occasion might arise when an apology might be issued by our separated brethren in the North for impolitely refusing to attend the late Biggs-Davison funeral. That would be ecumenical indeed.