ON THE eve of my O-Level exams, my youngest brother was born. It wasn’t his fault. His birth was extremely complicated. He almost died. That wasn’t his fault either. He popped out on the night that Manchester United beat Barcelona in the European Cup Winners' Cup final and I missed Mark Hughes’ two goals as a consequence, which still bothers me slightly.
But my O-Levels? Nah. Wasn’t fussed. The exams would take care of themselves.
My mother trusted me. She didn’t have much choice. She was convalescing, which meant she was mostly bed-bound. And she was British and working-class, which meant there was more chance of her playing for Manchester United than taking leave to help her son pass his O-Levels. On my housing estate, tiger mums lived in London Zoo.
So I was left to my own devices and passed the exams, just about, partly because there was a relatively unusual stress dynamic in our household during the exam period. The highest stakes belonged to my brother, not my O-Levels.
Ordinarily, the child’s exams are the centre of any family’s universe. On regular schooldays, we just pretend … Yes, that scuffed goal three yards out was the greatest in the history of the sport … And so on. But there’s no need to fake the stakes with exams. They are potential life-changers for everyone: the kid, obviously, Mummy and Daddy, who’ve got their eye on the atas secondary school that requires a postcode change and even Po Po, who’s desperate to show off her grandchild’s top marks to that annoying auntie who cleans up at mahjong.
Practically, all of the above is true. Ideally, though, none of the above should be conveyed to the poor sod sitting the exams, because we all know how that works… No pressure, honey, but if we don’t get straight As, then we don't get into that school and we’ll have to pay for another tutor. And then we may need to stop Po Po from punching Mahjong Auntie in the face.
But this didn’t happen to me. By an unfortunate set of circumstances, my mother applied none of the traditional exam pressures. The family’s energies were directed towards my baby brother, and rightly so, leaving me to take care of business, which I mostly did, apart from science. (Keep me well away from a Bunsen burner.)
Taking a step back in child's studies
So I’ve deliberately adopted a similar approach with my teenage daughter, trusting her to cultivate her own delicate path through assessments and tests and stepping in only when called upon, which is a rare occurrence at the best of times.
Indeed, we recently had a conversation that went as follows.
“Mum, can you read my English essay,” my daughter shouted from her bedroom.
“Your Mum? What about me?” I cried out, clearly wounded.
“How can you help me?” She wondered, barely concealing her indifference.
“I’ve written 30 books,” I pointed out, fighting back tears.
“Yeah? And how’s that supposed to help me?”
So I left her alone to find her own way in her schoolwork. I usually do.
At this point, I can already hear the howls of indignation. This is a wellness column on school exams at the end of the PSLE nightmare. In Singapore! The home of the self-help guide, the how-to hacks, the celebrity tips on everything from belly-button oiling to teeth whitening and the promise of six steps to success in anything. So spare us the arty-farty pontificating about “finding a voice” and give us something useful because we’ve just chewed through seven fingernails preparing the little one for Higher Chinese.
OK, fine. Here’s the definitive guide to exam preparation: revise in bite-sized chunks. Take ample breaks. Eat, sleep and exercise regularly. There. Done. Now, let’s get back to what matters. The exams are not about you. Or me. They’re about our children, in every sense.
There’s a deliberate reason why I take a step back when it comes to my daughter’s revision. It’s her work, not mine. Why would I want her to think, analyse and write like me? What are the benefits of sending a Neil Humphreys clone into an exam room? We’d only be raising the prospect of my wife leaving two people later in life.
Why would I want someone else mimicking my thoughts and words on a page? Well, artificial intelligence does. It’s doing just that. Right now. Thanks to the investigative work of Singaporean poet Daryl Lim, I recently discovered that an AI platform is stealing local content, to feed its books database. Six of my pirated titles have been shoved into the furnace of algorithms powering the new industrial age of AI replication and repetition.
Finding their way amid AI dominance
And what does that future look like? I’ve already caught a few glimpses, framed proudly on the glass walls of tuition centres. They are called model essays. And they are perfect. Every sentence has just the right amount of verbs and adverbs to satisfy the relevant exam criteria. They contain everything, except an original voice.
They sound like AI. The more we drill, relentlessly and robotically, the more we do the machines’ work for them and the less relevant we may be.
Ah, but this is all easy for me to say, right? The privileged white male author? Actually, not really. Last year, a UK study revealed that white working-class boys suffer the lowest university participation rates in the country. Throw in my single-parent family and there was statistically more chance of me robbing a university than attending one.
But wonderful teachers identified a voice worth nurturing and encouraged me to think and write differently, even in exams, to stand out among the hundreds of papers that half-asleep moderators go through during endless marking exercises. It was enough to take a poor kid from a council estate to university. And it might give our kids a chance against AI.
The Ministry of Education knows this, which is why mock exams are wisely being phased out. The ability to throw up a cold splodge of word vomit in the age of ChatGPT is a bit like roasting bread on an open fire in the age of the toaster.
So why not let our kids find their own way? Why not step back a little? Of course, offer help and support when needed, but it’s their names on the exam papers. Not ours. So it might as well be their work, rather than the best efforts of parents and tutors.
Because parrots can pass exams. But how far they fly in an AI-dominated workplace remains to be seen.
Parrots can pass exams. But how far they fly in an AI-dominated workplace remains to be seen.
Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 28 books.