Testing Times

When new parents ask about HE and exams, they think the worst part is getting started on the GCSE ladder, little do they know that, for so many of us, it is the getting your child to the exam centre that leaves you with sleepless nights and cold sweats.

Exams should be the simplest aspect of home ed. Unlike the rest of HE, they come with complete curriculums, deadlines and measures of standards. Do the work, turn up to the exam, get the grade, bish bash bosh, jobs a good’un. And if you believe that… I’m here to burst your beautiful, beautiful bubble.


I’m not talking about deciding on syllabi, trying to find an exam centre, tracking down all the supporting resources, dividing the work up over the year to ensure that your child ‘peaks’ at the right point with minimal stress, finding ways that work for your child to absorb that information, familiarising yourself with all the content and filling in gaps in your child’s knowledge of subjects you forgot existed more than twenty years ago, marking millions of past papers, finding tutors if everything is going really, really badly, finding the money to pay for everything, and all the other practical aspects of taking a child through public examinations. I’m talking about the emotional side – the stress of the job. 

I don’t mean to down play the pressure that parents of schooled children go through during exam time; exams are no fun for any parent. But there is one aspect of exams that HEing parents take the weight of that other parents just don’t, and that is full responsibility for the outcome of the examination process. No, that’s not entirely true. We take full responsibility for any negative outcome of the examination process, but all success belongs to the child taking the exam. If everything goes to plan, “Well done little Johnnie!! We always knew you could do it!”, and if it doesn’t, “she should have left the job to the professionals. Fancy thinking she could educate the child herself.” At no point can we pass any of the blame on to teachers, parents or the child’s intelligence, because we are the teacher, the parents and the source of the genes. It’s a bit of a raw deal when you think about it. We get all the judgment, without any of the acknowledgement, pay rises and promotions that school teachers get when their students do well, but that’s alright, knowing our children will have the qualifications so that they eventually leave, for most of us, is praise enough. 

The stress usually starts when you become aware that if your child was in school, they would be going into year 7 the following September. You look at the other parents sitting GCSEs, realise their children aren’t too much older than yours, and you start to be aware of what might be coming for you, so you either manically start looking at educational institutions and make a late entry to the local senior school, or panic-buy every KS3 textbook in Waterstones and proceed to never open them for the rest of your HEing days (unless you were a qualified teacher or a high academic achiever in a past life – they often do things slightly differently to the rest of us, but generally get the same end results). This calms the nerves for the next year and a half, and then you start looking at GCSEs again…

By about 12/13 years of age, if you are still HEing by this point, you will be well aware that after year 9 there is no way to get your child a place in school, and barring FE College 14-16 functional skills, and specific GCSE English and maths courses for HEed children (few and far between), you are pretty much going it alone.  

Those that are really unsure about what they are doing, need structure, take comfort in a security net or worry about dividing their time up between younger and older children, look to distance-learning providers. Those that are only concerned about one or two subjects, or want to study a niche subject, get in a tutor — loads and loads do this for maths and English. And everyone does their research into DIY GCSEs ( https://he-exams.wikia.org/wiki/HE_Exams_Wiki  https://www.thecambridgehomeeducator.com/learning/#gcsesandthelike ) — even with distance-learning providers and tutors, you probably will be doing most of the facilitating and marking of past papers yourself.

Once the big decisions have been made, you have an exam centre in mind that is willing to take external candidates doing your specific exam board and can also cater for your specific needs, and you have started on the course book, the stress then (usually) eases off for a bit as you get into the swing of just learning for a GCSE. At some points, it can even get a little bit enjoyable if you have a course that lends itself to lots of ‘school trips’ and you are regularly meeting with a group that is also going through the same subject. (If you can get a GCSE group together, that is the best support you can have.) On the whole though, it’s rather dull.

Dull at this stage is good. Hope for dull. Non-dull means something isn’t going to plan and it can be traumatic for both parent and child. Yay, dull.

If you are sitting a summer exam and have been dividing the syllabus out over a year or two, and sticking to the timetable, you can hold the stress off until about February, but usually there is a little panic in January, when you realise quite how behind you have got over Christmas. Following a period of manic working, you do catch up with yourself, albeit later than planned. And then on to past papers… 

I have heard that the first past paper can be quite a relief when a child does better than they thought they would. We have never had that. Our first paper has always been a massive disaster. To begin with, this used to leave us all shaking with fear, self-loathing and doubt, but we have now come to see it as par for the course, so don’t worry too much about a ‘2’, or an ‘E’ in old money. Even a complete fail at this stage is fine and, for us at least, normal. Very quickly you will start picking that mark up, it all starts to look rosy, and then you begin to plateau. For many it is around the 3/4 mark, right on the cusp of pass/fail. If this goes on too long, even when you know you have plenty of time to pick the grade up, it remains a worry. If you haven’t done GCSEs before, don’t panic, for the vast, vast majority of HEors, you will eventually get to that stage when you consistently get that all precious ‘4’/‘C’. 

Most do not learn on a nice, continuous, steady, linear progression line. It is usually a leap-plateau-decline-repeat pattern. And the particular pattern your child adopts will be very individual to them. Understanding your own child’s pattern of learning makes a huge difference to the timings, style and confidence you go at a subject with. For this reason, many people say start with one or two GCSEs that are fairly straight-forward in nature, that don’t really ‘matter’ (i.e. not maths or English, unless you are really sure you have them in the bag, or subjects your child would like to pursue at A-Level), that have a large number of past papers for practice (so not a new syllabus), and the exam board will continue running that syllabus for at least a year after you plan to sit your exam (so that you can do a re-take should you want to).

Every year it is stressful, but only once did it get so bad that we actually considered pulling our child out from sitting an exam. Normally, I wouldn’t recommend it as nothing says ‘I don’t have faith in you’ quite like pulling a child out of an exam, but we were still getting ‘D’s and E’s two weeks before the exam date, and the fear that a ‘fail’ would set my child further back, emotionally speaking, than us pulling them out was quite real at this stage. Then out of nowhere it all suddenly clicked and they finally ended up with an ‘A*’. So the moral of the story… I’m not really sure, but I can definitely tell you from personal experience, expect a roller coaster.

And then comes the exams. For most people, you will check the dates and times 1,000 times over, even when they are written very clearly on your calendar in bright red pen with stars all round. You will get momentary panics when you think for a split second that today is Thursday and not Tuesday, or it is 15th instead of the 11th. Everything you ever thought you knew, you will be second guessing, with multiple minor adrenaline rushes throughout the day, every day, during exam season. And heaven help you if you are sitting the autumn series, and you have yet to change the clock in the car.

In the week before your exams start, you will be reading every email the exam centre has ever sent you through at least twice. You will then get a list of everything you need in the clear pencil case you have yet to buy, and you hit Ryman’s. A sensible person might take their child to the stationary shop with them, but for some reason I never have, so as I try out all the pens on the little scribble pad, I panic again, decide that the right pen is the difference between a C and a D, then proceed to buy multipacks of seven different pen varieties. ‘Why multipacks?’ I hear you ask. By this stage, pens are the most important thing in your parental thinking given that they are pretty much the only thing you have control over, so your thinking goes: 

  • The perfect pen equals a pass
  • Seven pens equals a chance to try out lots and find the perfect pen.
  • If perfect pen runs out, you don’t want to be left with second best pen, which would equal a fail.
  • Buy multipack of perfect pen to ensure a pass. 
  • Don’t know which is perfect pen so get multipacks of everything.  

You then move on to pencils. I have had the same discussion with myself about pencils in the stationary shop for the past five years. This one goes:

  • We have many sizes and varieties of pencils at home. 
  • We really don’t need any more.
  • But they are all the sort you sharpen.
  • You don’t want to sharpen a pencil in an exam as that wastes time and may result in an E instead of a B.
  • Get propelling pencils.
  • Propelling pencils are really bad for the environment.
  • But they self-sharpen and have a rubber on the end too.
  • If you have lots of pre-sharpened pencils, that won’t be a problem, and you can use a pencil with a rubber on top.
  • We have pencils with rubbers on top at home.
  • But they might all be of different heights and look a bit grubby, which might distract my child and result in an F instead of an A.
  • Buy new pencils with and without rubbers on top, five separate rubbers and three pencil sharpeners… and a new ruler, protractor and set square just incase the old ones are cracked, missing or difficult to read. Oh! and don’t forget a second clear pencil case, just in case the zip goes on my first choice of case or my child feels gender stereotyped by the pink/blue [delete as appropriate] zip, so would like to opt for black instead, but clearly I can’t just get the black zippered one as that might make them feel depressed which could turn my A* [yes, by this stage their grade really is my grade] into a U.

£40 later, you come out feeling that although you have wasted money you haven’t got and helped destroy the planet through mass consumerism, at least you have saved your child from impending academic failure with a well-organised and visually appealing transparent pencil case.

The night before an exam you will be ‘double checking’ that pencil case at least ten times. You will also keep flicking through making sure you have put the right passport with it and that you have taken the label off the bottle of water you did a last minute supermarket run for because you had completely forgotten that they needed one – your child doesn’t normally need to be drip fed water during a 45 minute multiple choice at home but, as this is the real thing, it’s the difference between future academic disaster leading to family destitution and ultimately merciless and agonising death, or winning a Nobel peace prize for their work in economics IGCSE multiple choice papers; whatever else happens in life, your child will go into that exam with a bottle of water in tow. 

If you think your child is really unsure of the subject, you will be up late, cramming with them until the very last moment, watching Youtube Crashcourses, going through past paper mistakes and quizzing them on the dodgy, spur-of-the-moment mnemonics you made up in desperation to try and get them to remember the reproductive parts of a flower. If you are more on top of things, you will try and get an early night. Either way, you are going to have weird dreams and broken sleep. Most of those dreams will involve your old school, racing to get somewhere but for one reason or another failing miserably, and trying to sit an exam but something keeps going wrong. Morning exams are worse as you wake up every half hour from 4am onwards, petrified you have over-slept. When the alarm finally goes off, you’re a mess. You feel hungover despite not having touched a drop, you have constant heart flutters and feel sick to your stomach every time you have gone five minutes without checking the time, you child is half asleep because they’re home educated so haven’t seen a sun rise since 2009, and all they say as they mumble round the house looking for the socks you asked them to get ready the night before is “who gets up at this time anyway?”, which makes you panic just that bit more because they really aren’t fitting anyone’s description of the ‘academic athlete’ you had hoped they would become. For breakfast you suggest the mackerel on toast or a boiled egg – ‘Your body is a temple. To be an athlete, you must eat like an athlete. Performance and stamina start in the gut.’ – but in return, if you are lucky, you get frosty face as they pour coco-pops into a bowl, if you’re not so lucky, you get a half-shouted mumble about not being hungry because “no one eats at this stupid time.”

You finally get out of the house five minutes late, but that is alright because you had fitted that into your calculations the night before. What you hadn’t fitted into the calculation was the emergency road repair on the main road into Cambridge. 

If you take on Cambridge morning traffic before an exam, expect to have your heart in your mouth for the entire journey as you watch the minutes slip into history on the car clock. The cyclists will blur past, and the pedestrians will saunter by as you sit stagnant, bumper to bumper with the Range Rover in front, that’s trying to get Mungo and Octavia to whichever one of Cambridge’s many private educational establishments they deem fit for their aspiring young thespians, and the builder’s van behind. More than once I have had to throw a child out the car and make them run to make sure they are there on time. If your bowels are not made for such excitements, may I suggest finding a centre that is outside of a city’s central zone.

This year we are trying out a centre in St. Neots. Fifteen miles further away, but the same amount of travel time and virtually none of the traffic trauma. Don’t get me wrong, the general experience of getting my child to an exam is still just as stressful – the dreams, time-management crises, last-minute forgotten calculators, incompetent off-spring etc. – but so far we haven’t had any of those stationary-travelling moments that nearly finish off even the most hardy of exam parents.

Once you actually get your child to the centre, there is sweet, sweet relief (and a nice cup of tea if you have plotted out your coffee shop location map before hand). 

Most schooled children get themselves to school on time, every day, so an exam day makes minimal difference to the usual morning run of things. For our children, we are the ones responsible for getting them there, often to places miles away that neither they nor you have ever been to before. It is one thing to mess up your own life by missing a deadline or an appointment, it is quite another thing to do it to your own child. I know, I know, one exam is not ‘your life’, and many people do very well without a single qualification to their name, but when you are in exam world, every single exam feels like your child’s future is on the line. It’s not rational, I never said it was rational, and had kind of taken it for granted that you would have picked up on that bit when we were busy talking about pens, but it is what it is. You and your child have nearly killed yourselves on the exam preparation roller-coaster, and now here you are with all the schooled world and doubting family members looking on. This is the moment when your child’s performance determines to the masses whether your entire HEing journey was a success or just some moment of madness that should be outlawed. Again, exam results prove nothing, I completely get that, but the outside world doesn’t, and while they don’t, our children need exams to move to the next stage and, if they can’t move to the next stage, it is deemed as us and only us who will have failed to give them a ‘suitable’ education. 

For the real HE doubters, even when our children do incredibly well and we couldn’t be prouder – having battled mental health concerns, learning difficulties, family disasters, health problems etc. and still passing a GCSE – unless it is the top marks, there is always the suspicion that “they would have done better in school.” Society doesn’t ask us to do as well as school, it asks us to do better than school. And if we do? “Your children are academically able and would have done brilliantly anywhere,” or “hot housed”. You can’t win with the people who think home education is fundamentally wrong. When you are feeling strong in yourself you know that and can ignore it, after all you have spent years telling your children to, but at these vulnerable moments, self-doubt will creep in. This doesn’t just feel like your child’s examination, it feels like yours too, as a parent, a teacher and a DNA donor. The only thing is, you’re not allowed to say it or show it, because the last thing your child needs is any more stress. You have to hide all the anxiety that is bubbling up inside as you sit there being the rock for your child to lean on when it all gets too much for them. You forget how many times you have said, “don’t worry dear, you have worked hard you will do just fine,” “as long as you have tried, you haven’t failed,” and “don’t worry, if it all goes wrong we can just sit it again next time round.” But as a parent on the day of the exam, these words do not apply. You cannot fail. You have to get them to that centre on time, come hell or high water. Nothing else matters.

I have written most of this in one of St. Neot’s many coffeeshops, pre-lockdown 2.0, as my son is sitting one of his postponed summer 2020 exams. Looking out over Market Square, watching all the people pass by, eating my ‘little something’ with a black, decaf Americano, and in that moment all you have is an enormous sense of calm. Not because of the coffee, atmosphere or faith in your child (God, no), but just complete and utter contentment, safe in the knowledge that, however your child does in the exam, it doesn’t really matter, because at least *you* didn’t fail on the day. 

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