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  • Writer's pictureJoanna Härmä

No money, no marks:

Inside the private school-government relationship at exam time

Early February, and it’s Board Examination time for grades 10 and 12 here in rural, western Uttar Pradesh. Schools have another cohort ready for these exams: India’s equivalent of GCSEs and A-Levels. There is a common call in international education commentary on the private schooling phenomenon in the global south that governments need to regulate the hell out of rapacious private schools to protect the interests of children and their exploited parents (and teachers too). But in this little corner of the world, children’s interests need protecting from all sides: mistaken parents, rapacious schools, but at exam time, first and foremost from representatives of the state who are meant to enforce the rules.

The school I am writing about here is an example of what countless schools go through – but in this case, the Principal is committed to the learning of her students rather than the bottom line or ranking highly in Board exam results through fair means or foul. Science subjects at the upper-secondary level mean actual practical examinations, in a lab, for those in the final year of school, class 12. Under the government’s girl-friendly policies (Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao), if you have more than 15 girls in a given subject, the school can request the practical take place on home turf. This school has boys and girls enrolled, but I’ll focus here on the girls because they are the object of certain ‘girl-friendly’ policies.

First came biology, the week before last week, for which the school had fewer than 15 girls sitting, meaning that they were assigned by the examiner to a centre. This happened to be some 40 kilometres away from the school. Anyone who knows what remote, rural roads are like will understand the difficulties, especially with early morning winter fog and the fears that come along with shepherding a group of girls safely at very early and late hours. Added to this, it was established that the designated examination centre had no facilities for a practical. Farcical as this may be, it is not as uncommon as you might think, and the alternative is to hold what is really an oral examination of the student instead, still called ‘a practical’. In this instance the double impediment of no lab and 40 km distance was enough for Principal to make the call to just send the list of names (her students) with the marks she wanted them to assign to each child, and a payment of Rs200 per child, for the enjoyment of the examiners. It was only after the fact that she found out that the examiner could have chosen to call the students to a school in a neighbouring village, but by then it was too late.

Next was Chemistry, for which this school had many more than 15 female students, meaning ‘the practical’ was at their own premises. The Principal requested firmly that the examiners question the students rigorously, to at least give them the feeling that their class 12 Board practicals meant something. It certainly worked; I was able to visit, and witnessed how the students, waiting in a classroom together, nervously did last minute swatting up and there was a frisson in the air, as each candidate was called to the table in the courtyard to be grilled. And grilled they were. This examiner acted in a rigorous manner, and was treated graciously, well fed, and sent away with the list of names with grades assigned to each, and an envelope containing Rs100 per child. Yes, as usual, he had to be paid just to do his job, but the payment was less than for biology because in that instance the payment had to cover the privilege of not even showing up.

The last was physics, the examiners for which proved as callous and inconsiderate as the first lot who needlessly assigned the students a far distant centre. Despite these civil servants being compensated well for their efforts, provided for with several nights’ allowances for food and accommodation to enable them to conduct these practicals all over a given area, they want to pocket the allowances, spend as little as they can, and get home as fast as possible. The Principal was able to arrange for free accommodation, and asked them to come first to her school, arriving in the evening to start their tour of exams the next morning with her students first. They didn’t take her up on her offer but on Saturday they called at 4pm asking if she could quickly gather all the students so they could just get it over with – to suit only themselves. The reader who is unfamiliar will just have to take my word for it that transportation of young people on dark, country roads at a late hour (they would be returning home long, long after dark) is not something you want to do unless there is no choice. Of course from the academic point of view it was outrageous that they thought they could just call these young students together last thing on a Saturday to tick this chore off their list – who cares that they might want some mental preparation time and that they would be tired at the end of the day?

In the end, the compromise was reached that these examiners would come in the evening for the free accommodation and meals, to conduct ‘the practicals’ first thing on Sunday morning at 8am. This all went to plan and they left with the obligatory clean envelope filled with dirty money to top up their already-enormous civil service teacher salaries and the allowances they got for their hardships in visiting villages like theirs – much like the one I write from now.

Now for the nitty gritty – how the marking actually works. You are probably aghast at the notion of paying bribes for marks, and wondering about the relationship between Rs100 per head; the actual oral examination that took place; and the mark awarded to the student in the end. Most schools will provide a list of names with top marks usually selected for each student. There might then be a bit of negotiation, to avoid things looking suspicious, where the examiner asks which are the ‘topper’ kids and which are the lowest-performing, so that some deductions can be made for the latter. But if there are 30 questions, the ‘toppers’ will get all 30, and then the lower ones are assigned maybe 28, when in reality the lowest performers might have only got about 15 questions right. I don’t need to explain then the devaluing of the hard work of the best-performers, when their much-less-able or motivated classmates score 28. Some students stand head and shoulders above their peers, but in this corrupt system, they take a bashing.

You might be wondering how anyone honest and education-orientated could possibly engage in this corruption. Some painful lessons were learned during the pandemic, when the state asked schools for the results of their own internal examinations to assign Board results because in-person exams could not be held, as happened in many rich countries. The state assumed that all private schools would be providing vastly inflated marks, so they summarily lopped 10% off the top, across the board. Last year Rhiya, a student at the example school did fabulously well in everything, as ever, and scored an honest 93% in physics on the examinations held in-house under strictest exam conditions. When she got the 10% lopped off, this was reflected on her official certificate and is essentially etched in stone for her whole life. She was devastated (even though 83% is still first-class, the entry level to Delhi University these days is at generally over 97% these days due to the throngs applying, so it really matters) and her teachers felt terrible. If they had engaged in the same corrupt practices as all other private schools, she would have come out with 90%, at least.

This experience was enough to cure the Principal of her principles (in this one area, that is) that came at the expense of dedicated and hard-working students. Now she just calls the examiners to come and put her students’ feet to the flames to make them feel like they have actually done something, that somebody cares that they demonstrate some knowledge. The practicals account for 30% of the final mark, and the actual written exam papers (accounting for 70%) will be sat for in person this year, starting this week, and what happens with marking those exam papers takes place inside a black box that cannot be penetrated from outside. However, it is clear that many top achievers’ marks are depressed while those who are almost guaranteed to fail get marks in the 60s. Whatever happens, for the 30% part of the result, payment must be made in order to avoid punitive treatment that would harm the prospects of innocent young people. This is at the hands of the government, the ones the human rights/right to education crowd want schools to be regulated by. Just about every interaction between government and private schools generates corruption, with payments being the only way to get the corrupt official to go away so the school can get on with things. At the same time, many schools engage in corrupt practices themselves, but what is the utility of asking one corrupt manifestation of society to regulate their private sector equivalents? It is entirely unclear how children are served in this mess.

I will sign off by asking: who will protect children’s interests when corruption rages all around them? How is any honest school to operate free of corruption when surrounded on all sides by unfair practices which, if resisted by some schools like tiny defensive fortresses, only hurt hard working young people like Rhiya? In an ideal world for schools like this example, these corrupt civil servants would stay far, far from away, and those who don’t understand the insidiousness of the problem would forbear to comment.

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