Gaming the British Education System

My son just came back from his six-minute oral mock exam for his French GCSE, and he was talking about strategy. [Note to Americans: think of a GCSE as a diploma for the first half of high school.  Except that it split by subject: most schools offer 20 or more GCSEs.  The student takes 6 or 8 of them, maybe as many as 10 or 12 if academically ambitious.  The other important thing about GCSEs is that they are very uniform across the nation.  They are based on a standardized test and evaluated by people outside your school.  The idea is that a GCSE is a GCSE, no matter where you get it.  Of course, that means that GCSE results are heavily based on tests: your teacher doesn’t grade you.  So, the six-minute oral exam in French will form a large part of your final grade.] [A mock exam is a natural response to this system.  It’s a practice exam, in class, intended to get you ready for the real exam.]

For those who haven’t had one recently, this exam isn’t quite like conversational French.  A long time before the exam, your class is given a list of 12 questions that might be on the oral.  Everyone develops their own personal answers to the questions, though there is a lot of discussion and relevant work in class.  And “develops” is the word: the answers are carefully constructed, on paper, at home by the use of Google translate, Babelfish,, dictionaries and textbooks.

Strategy is important.  I’m told you want to write impressive bits of grammar into your answers.  If you can squeeze in a indefinite future perfect subjunctive (or whatever), it is worth points, but (to semiquote my son) «…it wouldn’t work to write something really complicated, because you need to be able to remember the answers.    So, you don’t want to write something that’s too far beyond what you can say, because it’ll be hard to remember.»  But memorization is an important part of the exam: « … it would be possible to just remember a string of words, and some people do that to some extent.»

You will also be scored on content, which is the ability to produce enough coherent French to fill your six minutes.   And, you’re scored on the diversity of your vocabulary, «… so you don’t want to talk just about fish and fishing and how much you like fish.»   And, you’ll be scored on the accuracy of your French: what you say needs to be as nearly perfect as you can manage.

Then, six class hours before the exam, the class learn five of the questions they will have to answer.  People rewrite the answers to these questions and start memorizing their presentation.  The classroom hours are no longer really devoted to learning French, but rather to polishing exam responses and talking about strategies.  The tricky bit is the sixth, the “unexpected” question.  That’s different for each student, although at least in this mock exam, it was known to be one of the original twelve.

Student’s answers are brought up in class, and the class works on common difficulties.  By the time of the mock exam, everyone has heard everyone’s answers.  To semiquote my son: «It’s pretty common, if you hear someone else’s answers, that they will have said some things that are just identical.»

One important strategy is how to mange your time.  You absolutely don’t want to make your answers so short that you run out of material before your six minutes expires.  That would leave an awkward gap that you’d have to fill extemporaneously, and that would be horribly dangerous because if you actually spoke un-prepared, un-memorized French, you’d be marked far down on your accuracy score.   And, you don’t want to go too far over, for fear of annoying the examiners or giving the impression that you didn’t properly prepare for your exam.

The “unexpected question” is also important to your time management.  Ideally, you’d like the first five questions to leave just enough time for a good one-sentence answer to your unexpected question.  (And then you put a nice complicated verb form in the first sentence of your answer.)  This “unexpected question” is relatively dangerous, because you haven’t practiced it as much as the other ones, so the best thing to do is to minimize it.

So, exam time rolls around, and hopefully, it all goes off according to plan and practice.  But, to my eyes, a lot of the skills that are being tested have very little to do with the way one uses French in the real world.  The exam tests memorization abilities, time management, mental timekeeping, and the ability to produce smoothly in a high-stress environment.   (Don’t forget that that 6-minute exam will have a real impact on the odds of getting into a university a year or two down the road.)

When one lives or works or travels in France, it really isn’t ordinary to prepare written answers first, then memorize them.  Of course, it could be argued — and it’s true — that preparing for the oral exam causes students to learn some French grammar and vocabulary.  And, it could be argued that the emphasis on accuracy and perfection will help the students to become fluent later on.  As it might, though personally, I think that the emphasis on accuracy leads students to be overly cautious and to spend too much time polishing the details when they should rather be learning entirely new parts of the language.

And, the breadth of knowledge is important in the real world.  Recently, my wife took a fall while hiking in France, and my older daughter, whose French is rather better than mine went into the emergency room with her.  She came out saying «I could talk about my hobbies, but I had no idea how to talk about broken bones and MRI scans.»

Overall, I feel that while my son is indeed learning the language, he’s spending at least as much time learning to game the educational system.  And, of course, his school is helping him, to the best of its ability.

[A mock exam is a natural response to this system.  It’s a practice exam, in class, intended to get you ready for the real exam.]