‘Half of you will pass’: my old high school’s pre-exam morale booster

I made some lifetime friends when I was at Napier’s Tamatea High School in the late 1970s. I caught up with one of them a week or two back and had a bit of a chat about those days, a time when ‘the word’ was ‘Grease’ and few knew that Becker and Fagan had named their band ‘Steely Dan’ after a giant steam-powered dildo from a William S. Burroughs novel.

Back then the social side of Tamatea High School was great. The quality of education? Not so much. I went from hero to zero in a microsecond when the English teacher changed in mid-1978. The new teacher informed my parents that I would fail at whatever I did, especially anything to do with his subject. I still have the reports documenting my magic transformation from star pupil under the old teacher to worthless dolt under the new. But hey… if my teacher said I was going to be a lifetime failure at everything, especially English, then obviously I was going to be a lifetime failure, especially with any English-related activity.

What Tamatea High School’s staff were doing made sense if you assumed they were actively trying to make the kids fail, while pretending to help them. I don’t think their strategy was deliberate. The real problem was that – with a couple of exceptions – these teachers were useless, as was the headmaster, a former English teacher who apparently never employed anybody more competent than he was if he could help it. Although, to give him his due, the headmaster did have one super-power: a talent for demoralising everybody around him.

I have a perfect example of his unerring ability to pull the rug out from under the kids. The fifth form year I was in were about to sit School Certificate in late 1977. These were externally-set and marked exams, for which we assembled in the school gymnasium. In hindsight, they were devices for showing who performed best under intense stress for three hours, frantically trying to remember isolated factoids and work with stuff the teachers had never explained, despite the fight-or-flight reflex shutting down higher cognitive functions.

Luckily Tamatea High School’s headmaster had given us a last-minute morale booster. ‘Remember,’ he intoned before the assembled kids. ‘Half of you will pass.’ And then, in measured pace with a pause before the kicker, as he always did to ram home whatever illuminating homily he was offering, he repeated: ‘Half of you… will pass.’

What he was getting at was that School Certificate was marked at national level, 50 percent in four exams got you the qualification; but marks were scaled via a national system so that, on average across the nation, only half who sat got it. The idea was that New Zealand needed to be a place where men could stand in the chain at the meat-works and gut sheep that were shipped ‘Home’ (note the capital) to Britain as frozen half-carcases wrapped in cheesecloth. Women got to stay at home having 2.5 children. Never mind that by the late 1970s this world was fading. The school system lagged social change by half a generation, and in 1977, half the kids, nationally on average, were deemed to have failed School Certificate. Because of the push for achievement irrespective of the odds, the system punished achievers more than it rewarded under-performers.

I couldn’t imagine a better way to demoralise kids going through one of the most challenging moments of their lives. It’s possible, I suppose, that Tamatea High School’s headmaster expected we would all fail on raw results, and the scaling system – which, by averaging, boosted those at the bottom – would rescue his school. Who can tell what was running through his insecure little mind?

The thing was that fifty percent was a national average. Competent headmasters could get their schools up to far higher rates by enthusing the kids to the point where the down-scale didn’t fail them. Of course, gaming the system by creating over-performers meant some other school would get a bad rate via the averaging system. Maybe a school led by a spineless and incompetent headmaster with no concept of how to manage people.

Vincent van Amoeba on Saturn… See what I mean about me vs art? (Note the tussenvoegsel, technically meaning Vincent came from Amoeba, not Saturn… but I didn’t have to draw that.)

What I find ironic is that the system has changed since. School Certificate, for which everybody I knew sweated blood to pass despite the odds, doesn’t exist now.

Still, I did get School Certificate, obviously, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to finish school and get more degrees than a thermometer at university.* I actually got School Certificate in six subjects, and what surprised me was that I passed art, which was internally assessed. The teacher had to submit top, middle and bottom folios for external calibration, otherwise it was their opinion. I’d expected to fail dismally; I was and remain apocalyptically useless at drawing. There are amoeba on Saturn more competent at representational art of the style required for School Certificate. And yet I got 51 percent. I passed! No idea how. Maybe the art teacher liked me.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2019

* Thanks in part to being elected a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society at University College in London on merit of my work at international level, I have more letters after my name than in it.

7 thoughts on “‘Half of you will pass’: my old high school’s pre-exam morale booster

    1. I guess it’s true of all schools everywhere. My primary school was definitely of that kind – openly sadistic teachers who got their jollies by using the power they’d been given over the kids to hurt and traumatise them, which I memorialised in a post a few years ago: https://mjwrightnz.wordpress.com/2014/09/19/the-story-of-my-old-school-yard/ With one notable exception the teachers I had at high school weren’t particularly sadistic – just deeply incompetent and useless.


    1. Hi – thanks for the heads-up, much appreciated. It’s not entirely off-topic, given that sales volumes are one of the measures of an author’s success (again in defiance of their high school English teacher’s insistence…) 🙂

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  1. Sounds like my school as well- the UK in the noughties was not much different 😉 Plus, this also reminded me how much I loved disappointing the teachers that didn’t like me by doing just fine in my exams 😉

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