Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Being on an exam paper


Delayed reaction on this one. A while ago I found out that an old comment piece I had written for the Guardian had surfaced on an A level exam paper. I began to get emails asking me for my motivation and decided to put pen to paper and write a piece about the experience for The Times.

You can read my article here or you can just read it below:

Now I'm an A-level question. But do I have to help with the answers?
Sarah Ebner

I’ve finally made it. I should be flattered to be included among the greats — John Milton, David Hare and, er, Gary Rhodes — and I am. But I’m also a little surprised to find out that I’m on an A-level examination paper with these luminaries, especially as the exam isn’t until next week.

Yes, you read that right. An article I wrote three years ago (ahem, for The Guardian) has been resurrected. It’s part of AQA’s English language and literature exam, which takes place on Wednesday. And I know about it because the exam board has already printed “Pre-release material” for the 6,600 students taking the paper. Oh yes, and because students have contacted me to ask questions about it.

“I wondered if you could help me by letting me know things such as why you wrote the article, who it was aimed at and what was going on in your life when you wrote it,” asked one e-mail, trying to cover all bases.

A 12-page booklet, issued to candidates last Wednesday, suggests that students should “use the time between receiving the material and the examination to familiarise yourself with its contents”. Brief annotations (the word “brief” is in bold) are allowed, as are highlighting and underlining, but annotations beyond this are not. I guess the examiners don’t want too much feedback from the authors.

The theme of the exam is clearly food and none of the extracts is very long. In the exam, the pre-release examples will be compared with two “unseen” pieces of text. I’m intrigued to know what they are — will Willy Wonka or Gordon Ramsay make a surprise entry?

The booklet says clearly that teachers are “not permitted” to discuss material before the examination. Well, teachers may not be allowed to discuss it, but students can do so with each other — and with the authors if they want to. The democratic nature of the internet does not seem to have been taken into account here, as a quick online trawl shows. A busy discussion on this very subject is taking place at the moment on the Student Room website ( And of course, I’m receiving e-mails.

If I’m honest, I’m surprised that there haven’t been more students with the nous to contact me directly and ask questions. Perhaps they’ve been thrown by the old Guardian e-mail address at the end of the piece and not popped my name into Google to find that I now work at The Times. I wonder: should the initiative of some be rewarded with an A* grade?

“Students are encouraged to research them [the pre-release materials] independently,” says Catherine McCabe from AQA, who admits that contacting the author is not something she has ever heard of before.

I was amused by the e-mails, even though I balk at doing someone’s work for them. However, I don’t have enough time to reply separately, so will tell my new friends — and you — why I wrote the piece.

The article was entitled “Why real food isn’t real life” and was about children being given healthy, home-cooked meals. I particularly remember it because of the vitriolic comments the piece received. People seemed desperate to criticise me because I pointed out that cooking takes time, and that it’s difficult to fit everything in when you’re a mother and trying to work.

I wrote the piece when my children were then aged 4 and 16 months, and I was trying to balance being the best mother I could be with trying to get work. As I had a toddler, cooking for a long time in the kitchen was not practical. The difficulties of that balancing act was what was on my mind, and the people commenting just didn’t get it. So much criticism was a real shock; how ironic that this article should end up being picked up at such a different time of my life. Students, does that help?

But back to the exam. Ms McCabe says that pre-release materials are “by no means new” and that those who set the papers look for “good examples of use of language” (more flattery).

Students are allowed to contact authors of the articles. “This does not, however, mean that you are obliged to answer them and you would not be putting them at any disadvantage if you didn’t wish to respond,” says Ms McCabe, putting my (admittedly not overly concerned) mind at rest.

“If, however, you are happy to respond, then rest assured that neither you nor the students are breaking any rules.”

Sarah Ebner is editor of School Gate — the Times Online blog guiding you through the maze of education.

The whole experience was a strange one as I received many abusive emails from A level candidates claiming that I was arguing that their exam was easy. I never wrote that. I also got abuse from people who argued that my piece was pure comment, with few facts to back my statements up. That infuriated me too - it was a comment piece! I always pride myself on writing with facts and backing things up, but this piece was not a feature or news article.

I wrote a tie-in post on School Gate, entitled: Being on an exam paper, the texts included and how it makes me feel.... Please do take a look at it, as I couldn't fit in everything I wanted to say in the piece!

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