Jason Goodwin: ‘You can tell it’s GCSE time again… it’s like an old episode of The Generation Game

Jason Goodwin's house has been taken over by unlikely invaders: hundreds of Post-It notes covered in information animal, vegetable and mineral.

Pressure equals force over area. The future form of venir is viendr-, because venir is an irregular verb – you either know that or you don’t. Barbed wire was invented in 1874 – I learnt that while shaving. Earlier, in the bath, I enjoyed this quotation from Silas Marner: ‘A man falling into dark waters seeks a momentary footing even on sliding stones.’

You can tell it’s GCSE time again in this house, when mirrors and door jambs bear instructive little mottoes and messages in coloured handwriting. It’s not quite ‘tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything’ (set text: As You Like It, II:I). It’s more like an episode of The Generation Game, that old TV show in which lucky contestants had to act with Bruce Forsyth in an impromptu mini-drama where all their lines were taped to the furniture.

Recently, my daughter and her friends adopted the habit of speaking French to each other, in preparation for their oral exam. I was impressed by their good-humoured diligence, but even more touched to discover how little youth has changed. P. G. Wodehouse’s observation in The Luck of the Bodkins about the British capacity for languages holds good, after almost a century:

‘Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the Hotel Magnifique at Cannes there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to speak French.’

To cover the horror of it, they spoke in exaggerated ‘gangsta’ street accents, accompanied by a lot of Gallic shrugs, but after a while it began to stick, so they dropped it and went back to their irregular verbs.

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I don’t know if the accent matters much. Everyone in France apparently loves The Queen speaking fluent French in clipped Windsor tones. Long ago, a French girl even assured me that an Englishman speaking French with an English accent sounded as sexy as a French girl speaking English with a French one, although I never found a reason to believe her.

What does matter is the sheer volume of stuff that these 15 year olds are expected to cram for their exams, all that information vegetable, animal and mineral, like the Major-General’s patter song from The Pirates of Penzance.

There couldn’t be a better time for it. We famously lose our capacity to learn. Somerset Maugham said that we’ll have read all the books that accompany us through life, the books we treasure, by the age of 18 or 21 or thereabouts. Our sense of wonder gets blunter. The wonder and the urge to learn go hand in hand so it makes sense to let children learn a lot while they can.

It isn’t fashionable to approve of Michael Gove’s educational reforms, but, when the older boys did French a few years ago, it seemed to be all about giving dull accounts of shopping expeditions. Now it is harder again.

Mr Gove is something of a swot himself and clearly something rubbed off during his time as Education Secretary. He mastered his new brief at Defra with commendable speed, later delivering a policy speech that promised to reverse the baleful effects of the Common Agricultural Policy and to lead British agriculture – and, with it, the countryside – into the sunny uplands of soil preservation and biodiversity.

I know how he does it. By his bathroom mirror are taped the words ‘A healthy soil is a living soil’. Inspirational mottoes from George Monbiot accompany his thoughts as he brushes his teeth every morning and he probably has snippets of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring fixed to his bedside lamp.