Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

The General Certificate of Education

on May 24, 2015

We learned very fast that the whole curriculum was driven by an exam called the GCE, or General Certificate of Education. Having just alighted from Taiwan, I understood that it was something akin to the National University Entrance Exam, but for Great Britain. However, there were some major differences.

taking exams

First, the exam was not written and produced by the Ministry of Education but by a university. Actually, by TWO universities. There was a GCE, University of London, and a GCE, University of Cambridge. Not only so, there were two levels to this exam, named “O” level (for Ordinary) and “A” level (for Advanced). The “O” level was taken after Secondary Two (equivalent to 11th Grade) and ended what could be equated to High School.  If one lived in England, one would then go to a “college” for two years and study for the A levels, which would bring one up to the equivalent of the end of an American freshman year. Then one could enter “university” which would award you a bachelor’s degree in three years.

GCE O levels pathways

The second main difference was that you did not take an entire exam divided into subjects. You registered to take only the subjects you wished to sit for. We thought that idea a real stroke of genius! Now, at last we could get some kind of recognition for subjects we knew but were not taught in school! Students were expected to sign up for at least four subjects, which could be taken in January or in June.

Saadia and I browsed the subjects like one would browse the menu at a restaurant. Let’s take some subjects in January, we decided. Let’s pick subjects for which the school is not preparing us. So we signed up for French, Chinese, Art and Geography. Which Geography? asked the form. Hmm… It turned out we could actually pick the region we wanted to be tested on. Here is where a counselor would have come in really handy. I should have chosen Europe and I might actually have had a great chance of scoring high. But I reasoned that I just came from Taiwan and should therefore choose South- East Asia. I discovered a bit late that Taiwan was considered a part of East Asia, not South-East Asia.

map of south east asia

We had no textbook and no teacher. So we went to the British Council and looked up and down the aisle on travel and found some books on that region. We browsed through them. When the time came to take the test, I was horrified. I barely knew what they were asking me. Somehow I got through the papers and to my great surprise, scored a D! I had passed!

As for French, Chinese and Art, I got A’s all around, as expected.

We then signed up for the June exams, which included English Language, English Literature, Math, Chemistry, Biology, History and threw in A level French and A level Chinese for good measure. I will discuss the other subjects in good time. But I need to let the world know that I was very good at History. The teacher was British and the topic that year was European history, with an entire month alone on the French Revolution. You can imagine my enthusiasm and interest! No more memorizing lists of unpronounceable and incomprehensible reforms by Qin Shi Hwang. But discussions on the factors leading to the March of the Women on Versailles and the Taking of the Bastille. The influence of the “philosophers” Voltaire and Rousseau, the ideas brought back by La Fayette… Everything was fascinating. The teacher pinned all his hopes on Saadia and me. Well, last minute, as we were all signing up for our exams, Mama looked at the total of all the fees, and sighed. “Can’t you drop an exam or two? This is getting ridiculously expensive…”  We insisted we had to take all of them. She looked at them too. “Aha! History! What are you taking history for? You will be studying sciences. You don’t need History! Drop it.”

the taking of the bastille

Chinese children do not argue. They bend their heads and submit. So we did. And this is why I hold an O level Geography with a D, which I never studied, while I have nothing to show for modern European History, which I studied hard for a year, adored and excelled at.


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