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Our PC exam system has gone totally bananas


WHAT do you think of this question from the latest GCSE maths exam? ‘There are 84 calories in 100g of banana. There are 87 calories in 100g of yogurt. Priti has 60g of banana and 150g of yogurt for breakfast. Work out the total number of calories in this breakfast.’

Does this reflect a gross error of judgement? Should it be banned?

Some pupils think so. They want to outlaw such questions on the grounds that they are upsetting to youngsters with eating disorders. 

One candidate, Poppy-Willow, tweeted: ‘Can I ask what on earth you were thinking by having a question around counting calories?

‘Your exams are primarily taken by 15-20-year-olds, who are also the age group most likely to suffer from eating disorder.’

Another said: ‘It just brought back so many bad memories for me that I was about to cry.’

A third confessed that the question ‘put me into a panic where I had to leave the room for about five minutes and a teaching assistant calmed me down’.

A spokesman for the eating disorder charity Beat told the Telegraph that such questions can ‘cause significant distress’ and should be not be used. The exam board, Pearson Edexcel, defended its question but assured pupils that they may complain if they felt ‘triggered’ by having to count calories: ‘We encourage any student who thinks that this question may have impacted their performance to get in contact with us via the school.’

This is code for promising a ‘mark-allowance’ and a possible grade-boost in deserving cases.

I am not in any way unsympathetic to young people with mental health issues. Anorexia is a particularly distressing condition for both the sufferer and the family. Many people, especially teenagers, are living in the shadow of some form of stress or trauma. But is mollycoddling and being over-protective helpful? I fear not.

Examination papers which seek to be sensitive and accommodating run the risk of ceasing to be examination papers at all. The content of exam papers should surely be determined by the requirements of the subject, not by the perceived needs of candidates.

A movement towards addressing candidate sensitivities, though, is certainly growing. The AQA board, for example, has been under fire recently. It felt the need to apologise for its choice of an ‘unseen’ literary passage in a section of its English GCSE paper. The excerpt came from H E Bates’s 1935 story The Mill. Although not mentioned in the passage used for the exam, a rape and pregnancy is part of the unfolding narrative.

As Jane Kelly wrote in TCW, this caused outrage and consternation amongst some candidates. There were calls for such exam questions to come with a trigger warning. ‘Some people I know were actually disturbed and worried by the extract,’ tweeted Alana Kingsley, a pupil from Lowestoft, Suffolk. Another, Hadiatou Barry, declared that she was ‘horrified’ and tweeted: ‘This exam may have very well acted as a trigger for underlying mental health issues which could have possible [sic] effected [sic] and undermined their performance within the exam.’

Predictably the exam board immediately hoisted the white flag, apologised and announced that it would ‘never want to upset anyone’.

This year’s GCSE biology (Edexcel) also upset our PC-alert younger generation.

Candidates were asked to identify the ‘gender’ shown by a set of chromosomes and to explain how ‘gender’ is inherited from parents. Shock horror! How dare examiners confuse ‘gender’ with ‘sex’? The former is, after all, deemed to be no more than a social construct. In UK 2019, gender is chosen, not bestowed! A ‘gender expert’, Professor Cordelia Fine, complained that ‘200 years of feminism has been trying to untie the link between sex and gender, arguing that the former doesn’t and shouldn’t dictate the latter’.

In many other countries around the world, of course, different and often contrary rules of definition apply.

Where is this latest evolution of the public examination system taking us? There is plenty of nastiness, for example, in Shakespeare. Should exam candidates be warned that the Bard wrote about rape, incest and mutilation in Titus Andronicus? And what about GCSE French? Should it carry a trigger warning about what French people celebrate in their most glorious national anthem? In translation it includes these lines:

In the countryside, do you hear/The roaring of these fierce soldiers?/They come right to our arms/To slit the throats of our sons, our friends . . . May impure blood/Water our fields.

And which examiner in future will dare mention Winston Churchill in a question without a PC trigger warning on his views on race and Empire . . . and alcohol? The great man also had a word or two to say about ‘appeasement’ and where that leads. Examiners and their regulators should take note.

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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