BBC Radio 4:Rhidian Brook - 08/06/2018


Good Morning,

Let us spare a thought for the thousands of students sitting exams today. Whilst writing this my own daughter was sitting an A Level English paper on Hamlet, and probably trying to spell quintessence as well remember what it means.

Upon the eve of the exam, I joked with her that were Hamlet to sit the A level he’d never have got going. His will would have been stuck in neutral. Paralysed by both the choice of what to say and the seeming pointlessness of it all. Of course, my own antic disposition was all part of a parental strategy, employed to ease her nerves, to make light of it, to help reduce the stress levels which, if reports are to be believed, are at all time high among our students, from GCSE through to degree level.

Exams have always been an unpleasant if necessary reality. They still supply the plotline of my one recurring nightmare in which I’m either late for the exam. Or haven’t read the books. Or both. But the epidemic of anxiety being experienced by today’s generation seems new. And a confluence of factors -future debts, uncertain job prospects, and a relentless competitive comparison – are all contributing.

It’s silly to pretend that exam results don’t have consequences. A grade either way can determine a destination, the people you meet, the job you get; but something’s gone badly awry in the collective perspective when students feel their very life hangs on a percentage point.

Whilst the symptoms of worry may be more profound now I think the source is the same as it’s always been. Part of it is, as Shakespeare puts it, that ‘we know what we are but not what we may be.’ And this fear of a future we cannot control is not exclusive to students. It is the human condition.

‘To worry or not to worry. That is the question.’ And it’s this question that Jesus addresses in his famous if sometimes maligned speech in which he says: ‘Do not worry about tomorrow,’ whilst pointing to the lilies of the field and birds of the air, sustained by God’s care and therefore carefree. These sound like pat words to offer someone who is anxious. Unless it’s possible that this same care covers our exam results, our future careers, and our lives. Then these words can be heard as a wisdom vital for living; calling us to keep a right perspective rather let it be bent out of shape by anxiety. These words are a counter to the lie that says if you fail, you are worthless.

As parents, and as a society, we have to work hard to keep this balance. When I tell my daughter it doesn’t matter if she doesn’t make the grade I absolutely mean it; not because I don’t think making the grade matters but because, for me, she already has. And that, I think, is the gospel truth.

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