Watching the candidates

Invigilation – do they still use that word?

Invigilation always seemed a good word. People keeping vigil over you, it made them seem like protectors, guardians, rather than the stern figures charged with seeing that you did not contravene any of the numerous regulations that surrounded examinations.

Sitting supervising a mock examination for Junior Certificate science, I decided that the best way to keep vigil was to sit in a vacant middle seat at the back of the classroom. Students are much more wary about being watched when someone is behind them than when the person watching is in full view at the front. How do I know? Because I always hated it when teachers were at the back of a room during lessons and I was not sure what they could and could not see.

I don’t remember ever doing mock exams, certainly not exams with external printed papers and examination booklets. Perhaps there was less concern with examination results before education became commodified and reduced to a series of numbers on a certificate.

I struggled to remember sitting my Certificate of Secondary Education examinations at Heathercombe Brake School and have no recall of how they were administered. They must have taken place in a classroom, but did the teachers act as invigilators? Were they allowed to supervise their own students?

What is most baffling is I that I have no recall whatsoever of the examination where I would have been the only candidate. I had taken four of the subjects a year early, and was then meant to take five more in the final year. Being instinctively lazy, I dropped two of the five, and only continued with those I liked. One of the three subjects, World Affairs Since 1930, was one I was allowed to study by myself, which means I must have been examined by myself, but I have no memory of sitting alone. Perhaps its timing coincided with that of another subject and a mixed bag sat together in the room.

The A-Level examinations at Strode College in Street in Somerset were a different proposition. The sports hall became the examination hall and every exam was conducted with a rigid formaility. The chief invigilator was a stranger seated on a platform at the front of the hall. The silence was disturbing, it added to the sense of vulnerability as you turned over the paper and panicked as you read through the questions, each more difficult than its predecessor.

Examinations became a regular feature of life. There were undergraduate examinations at the LSE, theological examinations at Trinity College, Dublin, Open University examinations in Belfast. Each time the experience was similar.

Perhaps it is a case of repressing memories, but from all of those moments which would be significant in shaping my future, I do not remember the face of a single one of the people watching the candidates

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