Exams at St Margaret’s
As an impatient child I was always being told that “it is better to travel joyfully than to arrive”, which always seemed rather an odd message. Why would you not want to arrive at your intended destination? A joyful journey today is usually not as valued as getting from A to B in the fastest possible time. To find the origin of the saying, or to find out if there actually was a saying, I took the short cut route to the destination and googled it. It turned out to be a version of an original quotation from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Virginibus Puerisque 1881 (I was pleased by the Latin title): “Little do ye know your own blessedness; for to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive, and the true success is to labour”. This apparently reflects the earlier Taoist saying “The journey is the reward”.
Try telling that to the anxious fifth and sixth formers who recently sat their prelims, when the “journey” for the few weeks up to that point involved hours of hard work, revising, cramming, note-taking, mind-mapping, bullet-pointing, rehearsing, memorising, reflecting, practising, honing those study skills to perfection (or so we teachers like to think). Preparing for exams isn’t fun, we’ve all been there, we all know that. Albeit the prelims are slightly less nail-biting than the real thing, the pupils know how extremely important the Highers and Advanced Highers are as tickets to the next destination, and they are worth taking seriously. At this point, it is the destination which matters above all, never mind the the journey. Cold, hard grades matter. Candidates need the journey to end in reward, not to be the reward. And tears are going to come into it sometimes, whether of joy or disappointment; one of the few things exams really teach you is that in life you can to expect to deal with both. Destinations can be a let-down – that D that isn’t a C, that B that isn’t an A, that A that doesn’t win the subject cup. In that sense the RLS saying is true. Sometimes the hope and anticipation are better than the reality.
So how do the girls keep going between the prelims and the real thing? This is where resilience comes in, having the inner strength to maintain momentum over the short period before the whole experience needs to be repeated or having the courage to try even harder to fill in the knowledge gaps, to improve exam technique or to remedy any number of shortcomings which prelims can expose, even in the best of candidates. Our subject staff and our Guidance team are always on hand to help girls, when they feel themselves on a rocky road or slippery slope at exam times, whether a kindly word of encouragement is all it takes or tutorial sessions or other academic or personal support are called for. We aim to provide wrap-around care openly or unobtrusively as appropriate.
Exams are not the “be-all” and they are certainly not the “end-all”; they form only a tiny bit of the education journey and they only reflect some aspects of acadmic achievement, not the whole person. At St Margaret’s we try to integrate exam culture into life in the senior school as painlessly as possible, to dissipate undue anxiety at their prospect, and, keeping everything in perspective, we celebrate all aspects of effort and achievement, not just those which emerge from the exam hall. In I senior, the exam diet is fairly relaxed and individual subjects are tested at appropriate times for their courses, rather than crammed into a single diet. The focus for the girls at all stages of their exam life is on knowing how to improve. As the girls progress up the school, testing becomes more formalised, with diets for II and III Senior in January and May respectively. Having had what we hope will have been a fairly constructive and positive experience with exams up till then, the onset of the first round of prelims in IVS should not be too much of a shock.
A joyful journey through school life, with an end destination which lives up to their expectation is what we aspire to give all our girls, whether high or moderate achievers in their chosen spheres. No destination has to be the final one either. At the very least, every journey, wherever it leads, should be a hopeful one – even Pandora knew that.