Life

Jake O'Kane: What grade will Peter Weir’s external examiner – history – give him?

Unlike me, these young people worked diligently for years, only to have their dreams stolen by a flawed government algorithm. For this debacle there is no excuse

Jake O'Kane

Jake O'Kane

Jake is a comic, columnist and contrarian.

Student protest at the Northern Ireland Education Authority main building in Belfast on Monday before Education Minister's Peter Weir's U-turn on A-level results. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA
Student protest at the Northern Ireland Education Authority main building in Belfast on Monday before Education Minister's Peter Weir's U-turn on A-level results. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA Student protest at the Northern Ireland Education Authority main building in Belfast on Monday before Education Minister's Peter Weir's U-turn on A-level results. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA

‘SUFFER the little children’ is a fitting quote for what’s happened over the past few weeks. While many children and young people have undoubtedly suffered – in the way we generally understand the word – with anxiety due to the fallout from the pandemic, the sense of ‘suffer’ in this biblical reference is actually ‘allow’.

Through no fault on their part, many students faced not being allowed to attend the university of their choice as a Tory algorithm and our own education minister's spinelessness combined to heap even more stress on this Covid generation of students.

One consolation of time is its ability to erode painful memories, yet I still remember the anxiety of exam time as a teenager. In those ancient days, we did what were known as O-levels, now called GCSEs. If we managed to pass them, we progressed to A-levels. So, from my early teens, I dreaded looking out my bedroom window to see leaves begin to appear on trees, as this marked the start of exams.

My problem wasn’t an intellectual deficiency but a lamentable lack of discipline. I sat through school staring out the window; everything outside fascinated me. From primary school, my reports invariably read, "Has the ability, but won’t apply himself".

So, when exams loomed, I was consumed with a feeling of imminent doom. I became a crammer and would sit, days before exams, trying desperately to telepathically read the mind of those setting the tests.

I forensically examined past papers, using them like academic racing form. If an Economics paper had asked about the causes and effects of inflation for two years in succession, surely it wouldn’t be asked again? And so, with each subject, I wrote out my bets, revising only odds-on favourites.

If an exam was multiple choice, happy days. I didn’t bother to revise particular topics, settling instead on my magic formula. Of the four possible answers, I’d answer ‘A’ on the first 20 odd-numbered questions, and then rotate between both ‘C’ and ‘D’ on the remaining even-numbered questions. I never fancied ‘B’, deciding it was too close to ‘A’ yet too far away from ‘D’.

I know what you’re thinking; if there’s any justice in this world, I should have failed spectacularly. Well, with the exception of Maths which inconsiderately demanded proof of how one reached an answer, I passed eight O-levels and three A-levels. I suspect, even though I daydreamed my way through my education, I must have taken in information, albeit subliminally.

Unjust as it may seem – and was – I was accepted to do a degree at Queen’s University, and to really annoy the children of this Covid era, this was at a time when students were paid by the government to attend university. Honest, it’s true. Instead of a student debt, my generation had a student grant, and one of generous proportions.

Paradoxically, it was this unearned and unwarranted generosity which proved my downfall. For the first time in my life, I had access to serious money while simultaneously being introduced to a bacchanalian lifestyle, fuelled by subsidised alcohol purveyed in student bars.

I won’t go into the gory details as they are much too interesting for a family newspaper; suffice to say Queen’s University dispensed with my services after one year. I bear the institution no ill will, their decision probably saved my liver. In many ways, my academic denouement was the making of me as I stumbled into comedy, spending years entertaining intakes of students every bit as indolent as I once was.

And thus ends my educational ‘mea culpa’. Joking aside, I squirm when I compare the educational opportunities I squandered to the young people forced through the iniquitous torture of the Tories’ Covid exam process.

Unlike me, these young people worked diligently for years, only to have their dreams stolen by a flawed government algorithm. For this debacle there is no excuse; unlike the vagaries of a virus, our education process and exams are set in stone. The government compounded their mistake by insulting those best placed to mark the students, namely their teachers.

Never was there a better opportunity for our devolved assembly to exercise its independence as on this issue. However, Peter Weir refused to put the future of our young people ahead of an algorithm. Instead, he deferred to Westminster, with his reward being to join his masters in having to do a complete and humiliating about-face.

As with all politicians, history will be Peter Weir’s external examiner, and there is no doubt his grade will be ‘U’.