We won’t have been alone on the day earmarked to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe to have spent a lot of locked-down time making (and eating) tea: cucumber sandwiches, drop scones, tea loaf, fairy cakes, shortbread and, incongruously, orange and polenta cake. But any activity which draws us together is welcome: I don’t know if others are finding the same, but easy access to online entertainment (and to friends) is habit-forming and means our meal-times, and post-meal walks, are fast becoming the only guarantee for spending time together even though we are living, sleeping, working and studying under one roof! At least our culinary repertoire is expanding.
Last week should by rights have seen the Year 13s in school for the last day of timetabled lessons, and we would have had a jolly leavers’ day and reception for parents. The Heads of School await as anxiously as I do news of what may be permitted, and when, to see how we can mark that milestone properly, but it brought home the fact that summer is this country’s season for exams. Of course, the public ones – A levels and GCSEs – aren’t taking place, although grades will be awarded, and that much has been digested, I think, by us all. However, after much thinking, we have decided to keep some tests for those younger pupils who would normally have done exams just before or just after half-term, and that was on my mind as I popped my head into school last week to record a message for pupils (by the way, parents and carers will have to ask their children if they want to see these recordings as they are restricted to those with school email accounts: after all, we wouldn’t want to become a YouTube event, would we?).
The back-drop this week was Central Hall (‘no longer central’, quipped a new pupil who finally worked out where this magnificent building with its ‘spacious, well-lighted hall and gallery [which] excited well-deserved admiration’, to quote the summer edition of the 1899 school magazine, The Cholmeleian; of course, she was right – since the entrance to the school moved north along the eponymous road to the Charter Building, Central Hall has become a southern outpost, not the school’s rotating plate). The sun was beating down through the lantern roof and played on the memorial to the four old boys killed in the Boer War which was the focus of world news when boys first started using the solid, tightly conceived spaces which supplanted Fives Courts, overspill classrooms and cottages rented out.
So, why tests when many if not all of us will still be teaching and learning @Home? I thought I’d just check the analogy we are using, that these are diagnostic tests. I was a bit concerned what my dictionary told me: ‘the identification of the nature of an illness or other problem.’ That sounded awful! We don’t want our young people to take tests so we can discover a problem, something that is wrong with them! But, reading on, I saw that ‘identification’ is but a first step, and diagnosis, of course, has with it the idea of cure, care, of ongoing concern. And that’s pretty close to what we want at any time: a term test tells the candidate what they don’t yet know, or know how to do; and in the current circumstances, understanding where home-based learning, Highgate@Home, has got us, will be invaluable in preparing for next year. What will we need to do differently (to say nothing of what we have learnt to do better)? I know that I’ve been getting through content much faster, for example, but I haven’t yet been able to do so much speaking work; doubtless the scientists, dramatists and artists will have similar speculations to probe.
So, the message must be: help us diagnose what you do know and what you don’t yet know, what you can do well, and what you need more of to do well. A bit of revision is what the doctor ordered, but no straining for high marks and perfect scores to impress or to meet expectations. That may well be a great model going forward, too: another way to ensure exams aren’t too central?