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At the chalkface The exam hall

BIG CHANGES loom like tumours, but some things stay the same. Like exams. The season kicks in. Today’s a big one – GCSE Eng Lit. Time for hundreds of parrot essays on Of Mice and Men. I check the paper. Good. Same old stuff. We’ve covered it. For yonks. I smile like Buddha at the tots sitting most solemn before me. “Any questions?”

says Chief Inquisitor Vholes. Lunk has one. He

doesn’t know his number. It’s probably “up”. Shaka has one. He doesn’t know his tier. It’s not “high” – as I fear he could well be. Dervish is most antic. “I left my ‘Mice’ at

home.” Phoebe falls off her

chair shrieking. I give the clot a “Mice”. And Billy Boy’s desk wobbles. “How’m I expected to

think?” Indeed. That appears to be it. “You may start!” says Grand

Inquisitor Vholes. Sunlight bounces off his peeled egg skull. It falls across the hall in soft blades of light and shade. There’s an almost cathedral hush out there. The more superstitious have brought in assorted charms and relics. I walk past aisles of faces. Most are calm, but a few look trapped, defeated or cancelled. It’s the whey-faced grins that do you in. There’s Little Kevin with pen in knuckle. A radiance plays around his face, which squints like a fist until his

eyes resemble insects. Sabrina’s are caked in mascara. She seems to want to dazzle her way to a C. Dervish doodles Donald Duck in shades. His hand is up. He has a question about that “Mice”. “Is it the fat one what’s thick?” I blank the clot. Severely.

We could both end up in the slammer. Decibelle scribbles with a Smurf. At last she must shut up. You expect her to spontaneously combust. Tirana sits in shadows, looking rather done for. You would too if you’d just come from Albania. Miftar just draws aliens. Little Alice, quick as pins,

effects a deft conclusion. Rhapsody, on Valium,

trawls to a conclusion. It’s the empty desks that haunt. Those absences. Ten years of schooling

and then you go awol. Dear me. One desk has no name

or number. A silver light falls across it. Maybe it’s waiting for

the ghost of Charlie Johnstone. Maybe we should keep it there until he appears – an altar to the measuring gods. I leave the hall and return

only when the exam is over. Heaps of answers are packed in sacks and sent off to the board. Most will do fine. Their grades will be better than ever. They’ll be well sorted. I just want to tell them that these judgements are not mine.

• Ian Whitwham is a former teacher. A book of his best ever columns is out now. For details, email


Respect: Director of Afghan Star Havana Marking talks to students (left) after the screening. A scene from the film can be seen above

Pupils get Behind the Headlines by Bea Yeatman-Biggs

“Imagine that you have never been to school, never been taught any different and there are politicians stopping people from learning anything new. You are going to believe what they tell you.” This was the poignant answer

given by Afghani Zahra Qadir when asked by a year 7 student why some people support the Taliban. It was all part of the launch

of FILMCLUB’s “Behind The Headlines” season, which took place at St Augustine’s Church of England High School in north London on Tuesday, May 25. Around 100 year 7 students

from the school watched a screen- ing of Afghan Star, a documentary film following the audition process

of a recently televised Afghani sing- ing competition. As music is considered sacrile-

gious by the Mujahideen and was banned by the Taliban, the competi- tion symbolises freedom for the youth, and many put their lives at risk in the process. One of the few female con-

testants in the competition, Setara, outrages the Afghani people by los- ing her head-dress while dancing, which sees her on the run in fear for her life as she is bombarded with death threats and evicted from her apartment. After the screening took place

there was a question and answer session with Ms Qadir, who is director of the Afghanistan Film Festival and cultural advisor to the Afghanistan Embassy, as well as Afghanistan television presenter

Jannat, and Havana Marking, the film’s director. One pupil asked “why do people

support the Taliban?” to which Ms Qadir replied: “Imagine you have been taught all your life that red is the best colour – it is hard to be persuaded otherwise. Imagine that you have never been to school, never been taught any different and there are politicians stopping people from learning anything new. You are going to believe what they tell you.” When asked which part of the

film struck her the most, year 7 pupil Sarah Sinclair replied: “Setara dancing. Watching everyone’s bad reactions to her dancing made me feel humbled that in England we can do that; we have the right to dance and sing.” Year 7 student, Jalicia Dottin, said the film made her “understand

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the truth about Afghanistan and how people live there and to not just relate it to guns and bombs”. Cat Fitton, leader of the school’s

film club, said that people under- estimate the power of film. She added: “Kids are usually reluctant to pick subtitled, political or docu- mentary films. FILMCLUB gives them an opportunity to watch and learn from these films.” Following each screening, the

students write their reviews online. Mark Higham, chief executive of FILMCLUB, said: “These kinds of films make students question things. They are not just black and white headlines; they give us an insight into the lives of others and make us develop a sense of empathy.” For more on FILMCLUB, visit


SecEd • June 10 2010

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