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Chris Deerin: Never mind the kids, parents might not survive this year’s excessive exam stress

The muddled nature of exams this year is heaping extra stress onto teenagers, writes Chris Deerin
The muddled nature of exams this year is heaping extra stress onto teenagers, writes Chris Deerin

I was in the deepest of sleeps, doubtless latching on to another perfectly-judged Mason Mount through ball, when the first blow came.

This was swiftly followed by a second. Suddenly semi-conscious and fully alarmed, I realised that my wife – still asleep – was swinging her arms around like Marvin Hagler. She thumped me again. Rude.

I gave her a none-too-gentle shove and she woke. After deploying street language to the effect of: “Would you mind not doing that, darling?” I asked her what was up.

Chris Deerin

“I was dreaming about sharks,” she said.

“They were swimming all around the bed. Then one jumped on top of me and I was trying to get it off.”

Her eyes narrowed in suspicion: “Was it you?”

Soon enough we’d established that I’d also been asleep, that she’d caught me with a couple of decent right hooks (which seemed to please her), and that she’d suffered what’s known as an anxiety dream.

Exam revision has turned the dining table into a theatre of war

Now, through our long and – on her part – long-suffering marriage, there have been many, many anxious moments, pretty much all caused by me. But I was, on this occasion at least, blameless. We figured out that her nightmare had been caused by stress – exam stress.

The authorities have made a complete Horlicks of the exam diet, adding unnecessary extra tension to what is already a horrible experience

Bad dreams, sleepless nights and mental strain are classic symptoms of exam time. One might imagine they would be left behind at university, along with grimy halls of residence, battered Doc Martens and cheap snakebite. Then you become a parent and you have to go through it again, but worse.

For the past month or so the dining table has been turned into a theatre of war, as Middle Daughter has studied for what passes as Highers in this curious academic year. The authorities have made a complete Horlicks of the exam diet, adding unnecessary extra tension to what is already a horrible experience.

‘What would you do if my arms fell off for no reason?’

Post-lockdown, the situation in many schools is grim, with teacher absence high and pupils struggling to refit themselves to the school day and the demands of learning. The exam structure is a mess. Children were first told they wouldn’t be sitting any and then the SQA decided to set lots of little tests that are exams in all but name.

The test papers have been put online, which means they are being shared ahead of time by the unscrupulous and the desperate. In the midst of this, there’s not been a lot of teaching going on.

This would have mattered less with Eldest Daughter, your classic studious schoolgirl who sailed through her Highers, and, I suspect, with Youngest Daughter, who seems to be cut from similar cloth. Middle Daughter, though, is a different species. Her mind resolutely refuses to comply and instead wanders off into unlikely places.

We’ll be going over how the trenches were put together in the First World War or the difference between a diminished 7th and a dominant 7th, when she’ll suddenly ask: “If someone offered a million pounds for the dog, would you take it?”, or: “What would you do if my arms fell off for no reason?”

In the real world thinking differently can be an advantage

She is in many ways the most gifted of our children, but it’s safe to say that studying is not her natural milieu and that she comes at life from crazy angles. This she gets from her father – I remember driving my own parents demented with my inability to focus on a page or absorb basic facts. My wife, on the other hand, was a swot.

It’s quite amusing watching her try to impose her will on the least controllable of her offspring. The look on her face when Middle Daughter bursts into a trill from the latest Ariana Grande single or starts sketching caricatures on a nearby piece of kitchen roll is worth the abuse I get when I start laughing.

Teachers at Aberdeen schools will be given two class-free in-service days to mark coursework introduced to replace exams this year
Teaching has been massively disrupted during the pandemic

The girl will do fine in the end, I suspect. Her refusal to play by the rules may even prove to her advantage when she enters the adult world, where thinking about things a bit differently can be a positive rather than a handicap. As something of an odd bod myself it has done me no harm, overall.

But what about my wife? She has another few weeks of this to go and, to be honest, I’m just not sure she’s going to make it. Her carefully crafted study plans lie on the floor in a state of disarray, she has her head in her hands, and Middle Daughter has just asked whether, if there was a fire, she’d save the children or the pets.

When I go to bed this evening I think I’ll wear some shin guards.

Chris Deerin is a leading journalist and commentator who heads independent, non-party think tank Reform Scotland

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