Perhaps it is the system that should be examined!

A perilous way to climb to the highest grades, and not one to be condoned!

A perilous way to climb to the highest grades, and not one to be condoned!

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!

Are we clear about what we are assessing?


In some schools this remains the dominant form of assessment

In some schools this remains the dominant form of assessment

Providing fair access and accommodation for all students in conducting assessments and in examination situations is clearly a topic of critical importance to students, teachers and parents and one that needs to be regularly revisited. This is not simply a case of seeing how access can be provided, but also requires an understanding of what is to be assessed and why. In my experience, when teachers talk about making reasonable accommodations they are usually concerned with how examination arrangements can be changed rather than giving much thought to the questions of the purpose of the assessment to be applied.

It was with a degree of apprehension that I agreed a couple of days ago to make a presentation on developing assessment for learning to promote more inclusive practices, to a gathering of school principals and other teachers at the Council for the Indian School Certificate Examinations (CISCE) conference in Bangalore. CISCE is an official body with responsibility for overseeing the examination system for a large number of schools, and has a responsibility making judgements about which students are entitled to receive accommodations. At the beginning of the day I was unsure of how my views on the lack of equal opportunities which has plagued examination systems for so many years would be received. A couple of trusted colleagues had told me to anticipate some opposition, so my plan was to ensure I had identified escape routes that would enable me to get out of the building relatively unscathed.

As things turned out, any misgivings I may have had were quickly dissipated by the warmth of reception I was given and the positive responses from my audience. It immediately became clear that when I suggested that students may play a part in self-assessment, and that they should additionally have opportunities to evaluate the teaching that they received, there was a good deal of agreement in the auditorium. Similarly when I gave examples of how written examinations may obstruct the ability of some students to demonstrate their learning I noted a general nodding of heads and was pleased to see that even the psychologists, many of whom have a major role in assessment appeared to see the point.

Two further presentations from Dr Neena David and Ms Navaz Hormusjee confirmed that CISCE are sincere in their commitment to defining more equitable access arrangements, and that there are already good examples of the application of more inclusive assessment approaches in schools. Whilst there was a certain harmony achieved between our three presentations, without a doubt the most constructive part of the event came in the form of a question and answer session with a thoughtful and lively series of questions and comments from participants which certainly challenged those of us sitting on a panel.

Many issues were discussed, but the most animated debate concerned the ways in which students who struggle with reading and writing should be enabled to exhibit their understanding and knowledge. There was a general consensus that a significant number of students have acquired good subject knowledge, and have a command of all the issues required by the examination. However some of these students are invariably destined to fail an examination that makes demands upon their use of the written word. If the requirements of a history examination are to assess a student’s understanding of historical events and concepts, should he be prevented from showing his prowess in this area as a result of an examination dependent upon the skills of writing? Would an oral examination be appropriate in this situation, and might this not better enable the student to demonstrate his historical knowledge?

This issue is, of course, far from straightforward and demands a consideration of whether this student might be given an unfair advantage over his peers. What level of reading difficulty should a student have before such arrangements are allowed? Who would make this judgement? Under what conditions should such an examination be conducted? As I would expect from a group of dedicated professionals who have made the effort to attend such an event, there were many positive suggestions and no lack of commitment towards finding a solution. Beginning discussions on these issues may be as important as reaching conclusions.

Perhaps the most heartening aspect of today’s discussion was the supportive nature of the responses from colleagues who have some authority in issuing guidance in this area. They not only listened, but also engaged positively with the debate, noting suggestions and discussing how changes could be made. With such complex matters under consideration it was always going to be difficult to come up with answers that would suit all parties. But the willingness to share ideas and listen to a range of opinions was certainly an indication that much may be achieved.

At the end of the event there were many positive comments being made by departing delegates, some of whom approached me to tell me of the actions that they are already taking towards ensuring that pupil self-assessment and the use of formative approaches were becoming a feature of their schools. On the evidence of today’s sessions there are increasing numbers of teachers here in Bangalore who are willing to share their ideas and work towards a more inclusive approach to planning, teaching and assessment in their schools. I will observe future developments keenly.

Testing times.


At least the dog doesn't have a test in the morning.

At least the dog doesn’t have a test in the morning.


A few days ago, having been moved to comment following to a couple of blogs that I had written around World Book Day, a young respondent posted a reply in which he expressed his own love of reading and bemoaning the fact that doing so for pleasure was not given sufficient value. Adithya told me of his love of Dickens, Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde but felt that at present in his life reading has been reduced to an unrewarding task. I would like to reassure Adithya that his passion for literature will serve him well throughout his life, and hopefully he can grit his teeth and get through his current frustrations with the demands of his current situation.

Adithya had written:-

“The fact that we read to pass tests is absolutely true. I am currently writing my 12th grade board exams that so many parents make a hue and cry about. I sit with the textbook and read through for nearly 6 hours just to score an 80% on that test”.

It isn’t so much the fact that Adithya is having to spend so much time reading to pass a test, that interested me in this statement. Though I do feel that six hours cramming from a text book may not be a terribly effective way to learn; at least not if your definition of learning, like mine extends beyond simply being able to regurgitate facts. My interest was drawn much more towards the concerns expressed about parental responses to the test.

All parents are understandably concerned that their children achieve well at school, and quite rightly take a pride in their achievements. Testing is an inevitable part of the education assessment process, but we must recognise that for many children this is accompanied by a high degree of stress and anxiety. Parents can play an important role in either alleviating or exacerbating the stressful experiences of their children at this time. When I read the comment from Adithya I was suddenly taken back to my own school days and recalled the experiences of a school mate for whom examination time was a period of excruciating anxiety.

Robert (not his real name) was well known as one of the brightest boys in the school. His course work was outstanding, particularly in mathematics and the sciences and in his early teenage years he had aspirations to go to university to study medicine. I remember in mathematics classes, never one of my favourite subjects, Robert always found the work so easy whilst I had to labour hard to keep up. Everyone assumed that he would sail through the final examinations and advance towards his ambitions of being a doctor. We all knew that his parents were already planning for his departure to university a few years hence. But sadly this was never to be. As the examinations loomed near Robert became increasingly stressed and started to doubt his ability to pass the examinations. The more his anxieties took over, the harder he revised, spending hours over his books and occupying every waking hour attempting to cram his brain with information.

I would like to report a happy ending to Robert’s endeavours but sadly this was not the case. As he himself had predicted his results fell well short of what either he, or his parents had desired. Whilst he may well have continued his studies and retaken his examinations he opted to leave school for a less stressful life and the last time I saw him he was managing a book shop in Cheltenham. His parents blamed the school for failing to push him harder to ensure he got the results they wanted, but I suspect that his teachers, just like his friends in school, knew that the problem was not with the school but far more with the pressures created from outside.

The expectations we place upon learners are probably more influential than we realise. Reading Adithya’s posting brought back these memories of Robert and started me wondering what he is doing now. Perhaps he is still managing the bookshop in Cheltenham, if so I have no doubt that he will be making a great contribution to his community and serving his customers well. Maybe he overcame his anxieties, returned to education and is now working somewhere as a doctor. Whatever the situation I hope that he is now happy and experiencing a lot less anxiety than he did during those last few years of school.

Everyone has their own way of approaching examinations and tests. I am sure that for some, late nights cramming from textbooks will be the answer. For others a steady approach over a prolonged period and maybe a quiet evening with a novel or some favoured music the night before the test is just as likely to gain results. Of one thing I am sure, the effort to ensure that learning is seen as a pleasure and not a chore is more likely to achieve a positive attitude towards study.

So,I’ve been working hard all day, it’s now ten o’clock at night and I’m going to settle down for a good read.