COLUMN: September 20, 2012

IT HAS occurred to me that I have no conception of the measurement of distance or weight or liquid capacity.

This is not my fault, I think that many people of my approximate age suffer from the same inadequacy.

For I was born at the time of decimalisation and the introduction of the metric system. And so when I went to school, I was taught about metres and kilograms and litres. But when I went home, or out into the wider world, if I mentioned such exotic measurements to adults, their eyes would dull with incomprehension, as if I were speaking white noise.

“What’s that you say, Gary?” they would ask. “Little Timmy’s been trapped down the well?”

“No,” I would say. “I said I wanted 250 grams of kola kubes, please.”

“Quick, to the well!” they would say. “Fetch the rope, Mabel. The damn fool’s got an elephant down there.”

I had to become used to working with two systems, but a man cannot follow two gods properly. So for small distances I use centimetres, for long distances I use miles. For liquids I use litres, unless the liquid in question is diesel, when I use gallons.

I still have no idea if it’s 14 ounces in a pound and 16 pounds in a stone, or the other way round. And I have no real sense of how long a yard is, which is partly why I am so dreadful at giving or following directions. If you ask me how far away something is, I am like one of those tribesmen who only have terms for one or more than one. “Far,” I will say, or “Not far. I cannot give you more detail and it is unfair of you to ask me.”

Governments of both colours basically wrote off my school year. I think they could see that they had ruined us and that is why the Conservatives decided to bring in the GCSE exam in the year we would be due to take our O Levels.

“It is all right, Margaret,” Education Secretary Kenneth Baker would have said, “This generation is useless. We have ensured they will have no jobs anyway, and I understand very few of them even know the difference between imperial and metric tonnes. I believe there’s even a boy in Liverpool who doesn’t know for sure how many inches there are in a foot. We can experiment on this lot with no consequences at all.”

And the Prime Minister would have said: “Excellent. Chuck another miner on the fire, Tebbit. I cannot privatise everything if my hands are cold.”

I did not like GCSEs. I was essentially lazy and easily distracted for four years of my life – the worst four years I could have chosen – and O Levels would have suited me as I would have been able to cram a load of revision in at the end of fifth year and do quite well.

But GCSEs introduced coursework as an important element of the the final mark, and I was done for. Combine this with the fact that my teachers were dealing with an entirely new structure AND I had chicken pox during the exam period, and, well, I didn’t exactly distinguish myself. I got two Bs, six Cs, two Ds and two Es. Or eight A*s and four As in today’s money.

Maybe I should be pleased, or perhaps jealous, that the current Education Secretary, Michael Gove, is abolishing the GCSE and a lot of annoying coursework, in the name of halting that grade escalation.

However, I am not an educationalist. I cannot offer any sort of opinion on whether his English Baccalaureate will improve education in this country. I am so ignorant of the issues that I could easily slot into any focus group.

But what I do know is that the first year to take the new exams will suffer, because they are being experimented upon. The exam system will bed in, and there will be some tinkering around the margins, but that will be of small consolation to those who had to take the exams first.

I understand how heavily that can weigh on that first year. Although, obviously, I have no idea how to quantify that weight.

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