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.