For thousands of children and young people Easter holidays are the last substantial revision period before the summer exams. Already revision timetables have been drawn up and redrawn up, needing revision themselves in the light of diminishing time. “I can’t believe that although it is only April I have this exam on June 19th” said 16-year-old Kate. “Apart from my birthday and Christmas I have always been free to change other arrangements. But there it is intruding on everything I do”.
Whilst some schools have diminished the intense focus on examinations by continuous assessment there is, nevertheless, at some stage, usually a formal test as well. Although there is regular debate as to whether summer is the correct time (for hay fever sufferers and for sun-lovers it is always wrong) or whether an examination is ever the right way to evaluate knowledge, it is a situation that has to be dealt with. Whilst some children and adults enjoy the process of trying their best in such circumstances others face problems.
Mrs W writes in that her oldest son of 17 is going away for the whole Easter period “as usual, leaving all his books behind” whilst her 16 year old will be “slogging away” for the rest of the holiday. She is worried that he will outstrip his older brother. Length of study time does not always mean best examination results. Many hardworking adults can ruefully remember the talented classmate who thrived on last-minute revision and examination adrenalin.
However, whilst there are painfully clear constitutional differences in intellectual ability and performance there is little doubt that working hard throughout the year and revising sensibly, with adequate breaks, helps. However, many factors, both conscious and unconscious, internal and external, mitigate against working sensibly.
Jane B aged 13, for example, did exceptionally well in all her primary school examinations gaining free entry to a prestigious secondary school. Once there, however, she began failing exams. “But she loved them!” said her mother. In psychotherapy Jane realised her father’s response to her exams had changed. Before her first French examination, instead of praising her for revising or asking if she wanted to be tested, as he usually did, he suggested a cinema outing to relax her. When she refused he accused her of being “posh”. French was the first exam she failed.
Family meetings showed how Mr B’s own father had mocked his interest in French. “I can’t believe I’ve done the same thing as him. I swore I never would”. However, through love of our parents and identification with them we inevitably repeat some of their errors as well as strengths and some of these unthought-out repetitions and transmissions can be surprisingly amenable to treatment. Mr B was able to recall that his grandfather had been robbed on the family’s first- ever “posh” holiday and never ventured abroad again, displacing his humiliation on to the language.
Is there anything in the W family history that might throw light on the fear that a younger son could outstrip an older one? Mr Y, for example, hated his older brother who was always held up as a shining example. When he had children he subtly identified with the youngest, helping to create a climate in which the youngest would indeed do best at exams. Mrs Z, on the other hand, a highly academic woman, still furious with her parents for making her revise so hard in her childhood, created an environment in which her adolescent children lived, on her behalf, a “free” exam-failing life. In other families it has to be accepted that some children can be cleverer than their older siblings and their parents.
It is not only parents who struggle with these issues. Anna Freud in her “Lecture Notes for Teachers” described how a governess lovingly reared the ugly duckling of a family, because she identified with her, but then could not bear the child once she succeeded.
For some children the attack on doing their best in examinations does not come from a parent or teacher but from a civil war inside. “It is awful to watch her”, said one father of his 15 year old. “She lets himself do well all the time until her exams and then you can watch everything fall apart. I think she gets taken over by an alien whenever it is exam time”.
In the fairy tale “Sleeping Beauty” the new baby is blessed with all kinds of gifts but someone, who is not invited to the christening, turns bad and sends her to sleep, anaesthetising her talents. For psychoanalyst Melanie Klein, this envious bad fairy attacks from within, taking over from the loving figures and spoiling internal resources. The powerful set-piece of an examination, demanding all the best of internal processes is precisely the kind of event to excite the sleeping bad fairy into action. This internal spoiler is the one who makes a champion ice-skater slip, a tennis player miss a crucial shot and a student, who has revised, do badly.
Mary, aged 14, for example, had encouraging parents and a good relationship with her siblings. However, from earliest childhood her internal saboteur found ways of tripping her up. Any new book, test or clothes item would somehow get spoiled. Mary withdrew from taking part in school plays, choirs, special projects and examinations hoping that this would anaesthetise or limit the areas of damage. However, a severely depleted life took a major emotional toll and she needed several years of intensive psychoanalytic psychotherapy before she could bear her own talent and creativity.
John, aged 20, at a university far from home, presents different exam issues. Ms A writes, “He has always worked well so long as no-one disturbs him. His favourite aunt, who helped to bring him up, has just had a rare cancer diagnosed and I don’t know whether to wait to tell him until after summer so his exams are over. I hate the way these life events come at difficult moments”. There is a curious way we call serious events such as illness and death “life” events as if to hopefully imply that they are part of life when really we do not consider that they have a legitimate place at all. When there is an important task before us we hope that “life” will not intrude.
Whilst examination boards at all levels are sympathetic to serious issues that impede exam ability it is very difficult for a student of any age to face two testing experiences at the same time. However much flexibility there might be about the timing of telling John, the fact is that something painful has happened that cannot be put right. Whilst even a final examination can be retaken a loved family member cannot be brought back from the dead.
Perhaps the “deadline” involved in examinations and revision reminds us in a shadowy way of what is unalterable.