Those of you who have long been out of the education system might be surprised to hear that the exam season is underway again. No longer is it confined to the summer months; it is now virtually a year-round experience, what with re-sits, Oxbridge entrance exams and the current modular way in which students are assessed.
So this week I have been wearing my invigilator's hat, watching over a selection of maths candidates. Rather them than me. Actually, I did pass my GCSE Maths (B, thanks for asking) and can still do the basics, but casting an eye over papers today makes me realise how much I’ve forgotten. It’s a good job I make my living from words, rather than numbers.
The winter exam-fest is quite short and much more straightforward than the summer marathon, where a seemingly endless stream of students from Years 10, 11, 12 and 13 (that's fourth and fifth-formers and lower and upper sixth-formers to those of us brought up in the black and white days) trudge into the sports hall to have their fate decided.
Quite often there are several exams in the same room, all starting at the same time but running for different lengths. Some subjects, most notoriously PE for some reason, are ludicrously over-long, with an hour and three-quarters being allocated for a paper that some can finish in about 40 minutes.
That's when the nonsense starts. Someone in the far right corner sneezes, echoed by another sneeze in the far left, then another and other. Meanwhile we invigilators swivel our heads like tennis umpires, trying to work out what's going on.
Last summer I caught one lad desecrating his desk by using a pen to engrave his 'tag'. The school had recently instigated a system of fines and retribution for such heinous behaviour, so I filled in the necessary paperwork and presented it to him. 'But it weren't me,' he protested vehemently, if ungrammatically. He seemed unimpressed by the fact that I had stood next to him as he did the deed. Apparently I must have been seeing things.
What always makes me smile is how many of these big, burly, surly, lumbering young men revert to little boys when challenged. It's all swagger and bluster until you confront them. Then the prospect of a bawling-out by the Principal or, worse, the Examinations Officer, has them mumbling apologies and promises not to do it again, whatever 'it' might have been. When any of them gives me any lip, I remind myself that at that age my own sons may well have appeared loutish to outsiders, yet even now they will give me a (discreet) hug when no one is looking.