Lots of children across the land have been suffering this last week – and lots will carry on suffering for a few more weeks to come… Yes, it’s exam time again! Aarghh!! My son has been doing GCSEs, and he’s definitely looking pale and dark under the eyes. And it’s not just children – teacher friends are biting their nails and looking anxious about their pupils’ chances.
Whether you’ve been doing SATs, or practice SATs, or end of year exams at secondary school, chances are you are feeling a little bit brain dead and just a little bit judged. So here are some suggestions for great books you might like to curl up with – either because they are nothing to do with exams, or because they show how evil exams really are…
1. Number one on my list of books that tell it like it is, as far as exams go, is The Windsinger by William Nicholson.
The city of Aramanth is based entirely around exams – everyone has them, even the grown-ups, and your total family score decides what district you get to live in, what colour clothes you wear and what job your parents get. High scores mean White District – a nice big house in a nice neighbourhood and an office job. Low scores mean you fall down the ranks, landing eventually in Grey District, where your family lives in one room and does the worst menial jobs. It certainly makes SATs scores seem less important! The heroine, Kestral Hath, gets increasingly angry about the whole system, and climbs a tall tower in the city centre to shout “Pongo to exams!” to the appalled crowd watching her. Of course, she can’t go unpunished – and that’s where the adventure begins…
2. My second favourite exam story is Futuretrack 5, by Robert Westall.
The hero, Henry Kitson (Kit), lives a nice life in a country where everything is organised by the all-powerful government with the aid of a supercomputer. He’s one of the Ests – the rich people who go to private school, live in big houses, have cushy jobs. Outside the Est’s comfortable gated communities live the Unnems, a ragged band of no-hopers scrabbling for a living in poor quality housing with dead-end jobs, totally controlled by the Paramils (heavy-handed police with telepathic powers). Kit makes the mistake of getting 100% in his end of school exams. To the horror of his teachers and parents, he’s off to join the Techs, in their white coats, who serve the Ests and run all the machines. Kit is another rebel, like Kestrel, and he decides to run away and see what life is like among the Unnems. What he discovers makes him realise how corrupt the whole system is, and he decides to try and change it…
This is an older read – 12 or 13 – but incredibly gripping and, like The Windsinger, it has some serious questions to ask about what kind of country we want to live in, and whether exams or family should have any place in deciding the value people have or the lives they lead.
3. Another great book that will make your teacher’s drilling for SATs pale into insignificance is The Demon Headmaster by Gillian Cross.
Dinah – clever, quiet, a little bit prickly – has just joined a new family who want to adopt her. There’s just one problem (maybe two) – her new ‘brothers’, Harvey and Lloyd, are distinctly unfriendly, and there’s something very strange going on at the school they all go to. When Dinah is asked if she likes her new school, she finds herself replying in a robotic way: “I think the Headmaster is a marvellous man and this is the best school I’ve ever been to.” She’s very surprised to hear herself say that, as it’s most unlike her – and Harvey and Lloyd act as if she’s somehow become their enemy. She can’t work out what’s happening. Eventually, with the help of Harvey, Lloyd and a few of their friends, she works out what’s going on, and together they foil the headmaster’s plans for world domination. Again, this is a great adventure, but it also has some thoughtful things to say about too much drilling, too much obedience and too much order.
4. Finally, because sometimes you just need to relax – my favourite antidotes to too much hard work are the Asterix and Tintin books – great adventures, lots of fabulous funny drawings, and not an exam or school in sight!
Good luck everyone, with exams and results – and try to remember that they are only one aspect of your lives. Just as important are things like whether you are kind or funny or good at drawing or singing, whether you like taking things apart and making awesome models, whether you can have a really good laugh with your friends, whether you are loyal and whether you are good at understanding other people’s feelings. And whether, if you saw a system that was mean and unfair and judged people only on exams or whether they came from the right family, or one that insisted on everyone learning the same thing at the same time like robots, you’d stand up against it like Kestrel and Kit and Dinah.