Now for real exams chaos...

In a country with spiralling inflation and widespread poverty, passage from school to university is

The annual deluge of ‘exam scandal’ stories which flood the British media every summer has been even more intense than usual this year, with tales of dodgy diplomas, chronic over-testing and highly-graded obscenities all sloshing about in the headlines.

The relative tranquillity of the past week or so merely indicates that we are passing through the eye of the storm; come August every child, parent and decently concerned citizen in the country will again be whipped into a frenzy by newspapers bemoaning yet another batch of ‘dumbed-down’ exam results.

Now is therefore the perfect juncture at which to head off in search of some much needed perspective on the whole mind-numbing merry-go-round. And no nation is better equipped to provide that perspective than Egypt, where the villains of education controversies are not OFSTED, Edexcel or Ed Balls, but army generals, elite politicians and the murky arm of state security.

In a country with spiralling inflation and widespread poverty, passage from school to university is an essential tool for many families, providing not just a measure of financial security but also a vital means of social advancement.

At the heart of Egypt’s creaking, corrupt education system lies the dreaded ‘thanawiya amma’, the national high school exam which determines if and where each student will land themselves a coveted university place.

As in Britain, the local press dines out every year on a sensationalist diet of suicides, cheating and political incompetence when following the 800,000 students who tackle the exam annually. Two things are particularly striking about the stories that have emerged this summer: the first is the way in which popular reactions to the test tap into wider rumblings of discontent with the government; the second is extent to which, by comparison to Egypt, Britain’s exam problems appear pretty low-grade.

Controversies this year have ranged from the predictable to the bizarre. Egyptian commentators have criticised the enormous pressure students and their families are put under by the two-year thanawiya amma programme. Demand for secondary school education far outstrips supply, meaning any parent wanting to give their child a fighting chance come exam-time has to shell out for hundreds of hours of unaffordable private tuition, not to mention the obligatory ‘free meals’ expected by many teachers from their pupils in return for classroom help.

With the gift-giving and the back-slapping out the way, the real pressure begins. According to one Egyptian newspaper, the exam period invokes a ‘quasi state of emergency’ in the family apartment. “Life literally stops at home; no television, no birthday parties and no one can come over for a visit,” explained one suffering parent. “You organize your life according to your son or daughters' exam schedule.” In this light, Ed Balls’ recent plea for schools to ‘stop stressing children’ sounds pleasantly benign.

Desperation for success forces parents to find creative ways to help their children on test day itself, with reports emerging of answers shouted from outside classroom windows, the use of illicit text messages and even hidden cheat sheets slipped under headscarves.

But no cheating scandals have fuelled more ire than the revelation this year that numerous students in the governate of Minya were given copies of the paper before examination day. Opposition newspapers have alleged that the student responsible for selling the advance papers secured them from the daughter of a member of parliament, and that his customers were the children of high-ranking police officials.

Although many of these claims have been denied by the government, they have reinforced the popular perception that hard work and honesty are useless attributes in a system where greased palms and well-placed contacts are the only qualifications for success.

Among those arrested in the aftermath of the controversy have been a local headteacher, a police officer and several members of the Ministry of Education. Again, it makes the recent furore over possible inaccurate marking in the British system appear somewhat histrionic.

To make matters worse, the author of a science textbook on which the national physics exam was based recently announced to the press that the questions in the exam were too hard and did not correspond to the curriculum. Never mind bickering over diplomas or A-levels; the tacit admission of a flawed testing regime provoked a wave of speculation that the government was deliberately trying to stop students from doing well enough to get into universities, as it cannot afford the huge expansion of higher education that is so desperately needed by its population.

Inevitably, this farce of pressure from below and corruption from above sparks tragedy, and news of student suicides often spreads before the tests even get underway. This year two prominent victims included an 18 year old girl in Port Said and a boy in Cairo who, according to Al Masry Al Yom, had been told by his father that exam failure would lead to him being beaten and kicked out of the house.

After feeling that he underperformed in his maths test, the 16 year old hung himself a few days later. “Psychologically, he was a wreck the past few days,” the student’s mother told a national newspaper. “He told me that the proctors at the exam hall told them that the exam was leaked in Minya because ‘they are rich people but you are poor’.”

As in the UK, complaints of inaccurate marking, dismay at an overly-oppressive testing regime and regular calls for an overhaul of the entire examination system are bread and butter for the daily press. The difference lies not only in the severity of the problems, but also the window they offer into wider social concerns about the state of modern Egypt.

The Egyptian economy is currently reeling from the twin shocks of an aggressive privatisation agenda pushed by the neo-liberal Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif, and a decline in real-term income as the world price hikes in oil and grain begin to bite.

In the past getting one’s children into a good university was always important for the middle-classes in a society such as this, where education is prized so highly.

Today, as inflation eats away at the middle-class standard of living and blurs previously rigid social divides between those in professional and relatively unskilled jobs, securing a decent degree for one’s son or daughter has become even more of an essential social marker.

Participation on fair terms in most facets of political and economic life is denied to ordinary citizens – the furore over exam corruption merely serves to underline the extent to which Egypt is perceived by most of its citizens as a two-tier society, separated with a glass barrier that even educational excellence cannot breach.

So, next time you are accosted by front pages decrying the state of Britain’s exam system, spare a thought for students more than two thousand miles away, whose exam woes are part of a crisis of confidence currently pervading almost every level of society.

And if you are one of those who, like Shadow Schools Secretary Nick Gibb, are boiling with rage at the awarding of two marks to a GSCE student who wrote nothing except ‘fuck off’ in response to an exam question, then take comfort from the example of the 17 year old in Luxor who wrote in a maths exam that President Mubarak was a ‘tyrant’ and the Egyptians a ‘cowardly people’.

In a move surely applauded by the Conservative front-bencher and his Daily Mail cheerleaders, (‘Feral schools that reward the F-word ... the left’s war is nearly won’ raged Peter Hitchens recently), the Egyptian boy in question was promptly taken off for interrogation by state security and could be charged with defamation. That’ll teach ‘em.

Jack Shenker is a freelance journalist from London whose work has appeared in the Times and the Guardian in Britain, the Hindustan Times in India, and a wide range of other publications. He has reported from India, New Orleans, Israel and Palestine, the Balkans and Egypt. He is currently based in Cairo.

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood