I share an office with a colleague who is an enthusiastic rock climber. In my younger days I too enjoyed the challenges that came with scaling the vertiginous cliffs of the mountains in Wales, The Lake District or Scotland, though in recent years I have been less inclined to seek the thrills of dangling above empty spaces; though the quiet of the mountain landscape still holds great appeal. You might then think that we would admire the chutzpah of individuals clinging to a sheer wall and shimmying along narrow ledges fifty feet above the ground. But yesterday we stared in disbelief at images that were being beamed around the world from Bihar State in India, not a region normally associated with mountaineering.
Under headlines such as “ 300 Arrested Over Bihar Exam Cheating Scandal,” (Indian Express) and “Bihar Exam Cheaters Inspired by Bollywood” (Times of India) pictures such as that above, have been shown, of parents grappling their way up the steep walls of school buildings and passing the answers to examination questions to their awaiting offspring through windows. Other reports suggest that parents have propelled the answers concealed in paper aeroplanes through open windows. (This seems highly unlikely as anyone who has ever tried to achieve accuracy with a paper aeroplane will attest). This is examination cheating on a mass scale. Arrests have been made (some news reports say as many as 900) and the inquest into the demise of the Indian examination system has begun.
This behaviour is clearly scandalous, but it is suggested by some reporters that it is not uncommon and has been taking place over many years. Understandably, the majority of journalists reporting this outrage have expressed their opinions in terms of disgust and horror, in many instances they are unsure about who is at greatest fault, the parents, the students, the teachers or the school authorities? However, a few reports have made an effort to understand how this bizarre situation has emerged in a nation so determined to demonstrate educational excellence.
Amongst all the anguished wringing of hands that has typically characterised the reporting of this incident in the press, there have been a few efforts made to understand the causes of this problem. One of the more thoughtful commentators to publish his thoughts is Sanjay Kumar, himself a Bihari, who is currently a Fellow at Harvard University in the USA (NDTV 23rd March). Kumar reports that cheating has been endemic in the Indian education system over many years, and that this results from the extreme pressure put on students to achieve high standards, despite often receiving poor quality teaching in under resourced schools. The blame for this situation he suggests, should be distributed amongst a host of interested parties.
Firstly, he is critical of an education system that is wholly focused upon academic attainment, but fails to provide well trained teachers capable of delivering the excellence that is sought. In part, this comes from an education administration that perpetuates inequality, with wealthy families sending their children to private schools that are well equipped, and where the nation’s best teachers at to be found. Those attending government schools by contrast, often work with poorly trained teachers and limited facilities, but are expected to compete with their more fortunate peers. Much sought after places in further and higher education are at a premium and these students already start at a disadvantage, the temptation to find ways around the examination process is therefore considerable.
In an examination driven education system, where teachers and schools are judged on their performance, Kumar suspects that corruption is inevitable. Schools are being run as businesses, advertising their quality according to examination results and determined to do all in their power to ensure that these remain as a focal point that enables them to sell places to parents. This, he believes, is unsustainable.
“The teachers will have to be responsible and understand the fact that education is not a business. This is the backbone of our progress and prosperity. They are building the future of the society and thus should be committed to the role they are supposed to play”.
Perhaps the most damning indictment of the education system given by Sanjay Kumar relates to the attitudes of parents. Reflecting on his own school days in Katihar, a city in the same Bihar State, Kumar recalls that in his school day:-
“Parents were never bothered about the quality of education, but were only concerned about the output and their expectations of us”.
Having made this comment Sanjay Kumar proposes that change will come only when parents take more responsibility and become directly involved in the activities of the school. He believes that many parents feel that the responsibility for passing examinations lies entirely with children and their teachers. Parents need to support their children, rather than simply applying pressure and expressing anger and disappointment when they do not attain the highest grades.
Whilst Kumar condemns the actions reported in the Indian press, he states that:-
“Many students who have gone through this type of education process including myself could well empathize with the circumstances which lead students to get into cheating.”
Cheating of any kind is wrong and needs to be condemned in the strongest terms. But Sanjay Kumar is right to suggest that conditions need to change if such behaviours are to be avoided. Let us hope that the adverse publicity given to state education authorities in recent days leads to positive action that improves the lot of teachers, students and parents.
Incidentally, the rope handling skills of some of the pictured erstwhile mountaineers are quite appalling. I would refer them to the excellent British Mountaineering Council guidelines on safe management of belays!