Exam fever has descended on our house, for the second year in a row. Maybe I’m on the brink of senility, but I don’t remember exams being this big of a deal when I was at school. You went to lessons, did your homework, did timed single questions every month or so, sat mocks in January, kept pegging away at practice papers, and then stocked up on hay fever preventatives and treatments before the real thing in June. And, of course, you got a year off from public examinations between your GCEs and your A Levels.
The consequence for schools of public examinations three years on the trot seems to be that there has been very little time in each year for consolidation of knowledge. Eldest has been galloping through the various AS syllabi right up to the end of this week, and now he goes on study leave. Er, what? In effect, by the time he gets to his A2s he will have lost half a term’s teaching from his A-Level courses, compared with the length of time his father and I each had.
Still, his GCSE’s have taught him how to revise methodically, and he has been busy since Christmas condensing his notes down on to file-cards – a different colour for each subject, with coloured spots on them to code for topics – and then expanding them up again. I don’t think I acquired that sort of skill until I was at University – and even then I only used it for subjects such as law or history, where facts trumped flair. For language and literature, I just seemed to absorb the books, and, faced with a choice of questions, never had much trouble finding something on which to hold forth in a manner pleasing to the examiners for the length of a forty-five- or sixty-minute essay.
One of my courses was twentieth-century French ‘literature of ideas’: mostly mid-twentieth-century existentialism. I adored the ambiguities of Camus; enjoyed, in an arms-length kind of way, the waspishness of Sartre (though I could have done without the stodgy density of L’Etre et le Néant); mulled over de Beauvoir alongside the shelf-full of 1970’s feminist texts that my Hall room-mate was only too delighted to lend to me; and laughed out loud at Roland Barthes’ nostalgically lyrical descriptions of wooden toys. A man who could seriously write, ‘le bois ne blesse pas’ (wood does not hurt), was a man who, in my opinion, stood in great need of the salutary experience of being on the receiving end of an alphabet brick flung with malice, force and accuracy by a younger sibling. Evidently Barthes’ brother was gentler than mine were, or perhaps, being junior by twelve years, young Michel had been too awed at the brick-flinging stage by the teenage Roland to subject him to these projectile assaults. But I appreciated M. Barthes’ description and dissection of the then-latest Citroen car, the DS – a bubble of glass and sleek enamel, floating on hydropneumatic self-levelling suspension, which was such an idol that its name was pronounced ‘déesse’, or ‘goddess’.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to read the books; we had also to grapple with the philosophical concepts behind them: Camus’ Absurd; Sartre’s phenomenological ontology; de Beauvoir’s Other; Barthes’ semiology.
On the day of my Final in this particular subject, I had somehow managed to set my alarm-clock an hour early, and having risen, bathed and breakfasted before I discovered my mistake, I decided not to go back to bed – I didn’t fancy getting undressed and having a second bath before re-dressing – and instead did some last-minute cramming on Mythologies. I’d already memorised a number of quotations, but in his last piece of the book, a mid-length essay called ‘The Myth, Today’, Barthes helpfully provided a little table of levels and degrees of meaning, which I now copied out several times. Two hours later, in the exam hall, I was faced with a question on semiology that begged for a neatly plotted table to support my disquisition on the evolution of sound into symbol into mythic significance. I duly sketched it out, wrote my five hundred words, did the other questions required, went home and thought no more about it. Months later, my tutor pounced on me at the faculty post-graduation sherry reception and told me how the examiners had been particularly impressed by my grasp of semiology in my Barthes essay.
I didn’t tell her about my last-minute cramming, or that I could no longer remember anything much about semiology beyond the notion that ‘things can be more than they seem’ and the general outline (but not the content) of the ‘Myth Today’ table. University had also taught me the wisdom of accepting a compliment gracefully and of not digging unnecessary holes beneath my own feet. I smiled, and thanked her, and moved on. The lessons in social graces I had not only learned, but practised and internalised; the Barthes, alas, had been learned, but not remembered.
That, I think, is the problem with the ‘lessons learned’ from Winterbourne View, from Stafford, from twenty, thirty, forty years of horrified discovery. Each time, the lessons to be drawn have been so obvious that even the most wilfully ignorant could not dismiss them. Each time, the atrocities have been roundly denounced, the promises to learn sonorously delivered. Each time, it is claimed that the lessons have been learned; and each time it has become painfully evident that if they ever were learned, they have not been properly remembered.
Such lessons have to be learned collectively, at the organisational level, so that they become part of the organisation’s automatic reflexes. Otherwise, the learning dissipates, as individual staff-members leave the service and their replacements are not imbued with the same knowledge. In an organisation like a hospital, the loss of knowledge can be startlingly rapid. While a core of staff may be long-term employees, many health professionals need to keep moving on to new posts in order to foster their careers, while many non-medical staff may also be in short-term jobs. Staff turnover across the NHS has been calculated to be of the order of 25% per annum. That’s a very rapid attrition of any unembedded learning.
Services need to organise themselves so that they don’t just learn: they retain and transmit what they have learned, so that future versions of themselves know that people with epilepsy don’t get left alone in the bath; that people with very high care needs and a risk of aspiration are not, at their most vulnerable and precarious times, made to share the attention of a lone staff-member with three other similarly disabled people; that people whose mothers are worried about their significant chest infection need to see a doctor as soon as possible; that having a GCS of 3 just now doesn’t mean that you have never had, and never will have, a higher score.
Learning a lesson is useless if you don’t remember it.