I am now so out of touch with GCSE English, the exam that sixteen-yera-olds take, that I don’t actually know what form it takes any more, but doubtless it still includes something about speaking and listening. I hope so. (For those not familiar with the English system, GCSE English is what replaced ‘English Language’ in 1986, when the O-level system was wound up. You can tell how out of touch a politician is by whether they refer to O-levels, which many of them still do, 23 years after they were done away with. The O stood for Ordinary, as against Advanced. The G, C, S and E stand for General Certificate of Secondary Education, which I bet a random sample of GCSE-owners would be surprised to discover).
GCSE English, like O-level English Language before it, and the CSE scheme with which it was merged, required its takers to give a talk to a panel of teacher-examiners, and later to a teacher with a tape-recorder, in front of the rest of the group. These were often a highlight of the whole process, because the individuals got to talk about something that interested them, although they were not always memorable for the right reasons. One or two of the speakers wanted to bring in armaments or live animals, and my administrator, while happy to lock away a gun, drew the line at taking custody of a mouse. I also had a student who kept ‘pet’ tarantulas. Call me old-fashioned, but I can’t see how any sentence which uses the adjective ‘pet’ of the noun ‘tarantula’ should be allowed to pass muster. ‘Isn’t he nice?’ she cooed.
One lad readied himself for his talk. He was the Vice-Principal’s son, and since anyone at the college where I worked had failed to make the required grade if they were in a GCSE English class, dealing as we did in re-takes, he was a particular challenge to the esteem of the English department. ‘My interest,’ he began, ‘is in survival.’ It turned out that he spent his spare time seeing whether he could survive in the wilds by trapping, cooking and eating small mammals. (By ‘the wilds’, of course, he meant the land beyond the bottom of his garden.) The girls in the group who wanted to be veterinary assistants, and there were a fair few, started flinching and paling. One by one, he pulled from a box beneath the table, behind which he stood, a variety of instruments designed to stun, maim, or dissect a variety of creatures to which his classmates had a sentimental attachment. It was a memorable talk, but spoiled a little by his standing exactly in front of a number of diagrams to do with the painful demise of squirrels and voles etc. – a merciful error on his part.
But the most spectacular ‘oral’ was a presentation at which I wasn’t present, but from which some colleagues returned looking drained and disturbed, and one which passed into departmental folklore. At a given signal, a lad had produced a box, and removed from it a number of small glass jars, each one containing liquids. ‘My interest,’ he started, ‘is in poisons. Even a small drop,’ he continued, unscrewing a lid, ‘ from this one could kill anyone in this room…’
I think he passed the test faster than anyone had ever previously managed.