85 - when the ordure strikes the rotating aerator

We had a disaster in school recently. One of the 2500 kids decided that the pressure for success was altogether too much and threw itself off a building with the intended inevitable and final result. Now, in the west, this is a disaster where recrimination, if there is any, is directed at trying to understand how the individual could become so depressed as to take such action and trying to understand why it was that no-one  noticed and reacted. In China everything is tidied up incredibly quickly—westerners would accuse the parties concerned of sweeping things under the carpet, of hiding things—the chinese thinking is more akin to ‘making the problem go away’.

Several (more than one, certainly) of ‘our’ kids saw the event. No-one has described the gruesome details but the foreign staff were uniformly concerned that counselling should be on offer and that we be sensitive to the emotions of those particular kids for the next few weeks. Our chinese colleagues within the programme felt the same way, I think.

More than one commentator pointed to the cost to the school in compensation. Westerners with no Asian experience will be saying “What?”, at this point—and I write like that because an increasing section of my readership is local, reading these efforts at writing in an effort to understand the western mentality. It appears that there is an assumption, much broader than the education sector, that once you have joined a programme (of learning, say), your successful outcome is to some extent guaranteed; indeed, it seems that it is only the degree of your success that may be in doubt. So people who leave the programme expect the return of their fees.  We have had this discussed several times with people that decide to leave our various programmes. As I wrote in the immediately previous essay, at the point of sale so many of the customers have bought whatever unconditional success they think they were sold (entry to Harvard, a place at Cambridge) that when the student fails to live up to the parental assumption, it is the fault of the school, not the parent.

In the same way, families that lose members don’t need to go to court to claim compensation; it will be paid and the only argument is how huge that compensation will be. There is no discussion, argument or even gentle implication about what pressure was exerted by family to cause the mental distress leading to suicide. On the school’s part, there will be little argument because, as I have written in recent essays, everything is about perception, not truth. Truth is irrelevant. There will be no argument about compensation because no-one wants the press to be included. If the press were included, argument would either be extensive or very brief. Western ideas of corruption require one to ask who benefits—in China, everyone benefits by keeping quiet and the cynical would wonder if the press might receive a contribution for not printing a story. It was made very clear to me that not only would the school would be paying out a large sum of money [seven digits? eight?], but also that the school is held accountable and that no-one else is.

Yet this does not fit well with (gibe?) what I have written before about safety. I conclude that this is more evidence that life is (in a sense) cheap, but I do not claim to understand the cultural thinking. Not at all.


Adding to this four weeks later, we had a different, very much smaller event, that contrasts well. We were closing an exam session down, having collected the papers but not released the students, in a state that the Board calls Full Centre Supervision, so the room was very quiet, when all those present heard a phone beep. Phones are not allowed in exams, of course. Aggressive questioning, in English, from one of the locals, caused a hand to rise (as if one couldn’t tell already from the pointing faces). The Principal was fetched (me) and, given that all were observers of the event, it was quite simple to deal with. The offending student and the lead invigilator were taken aside in the exam room and the other kids dismissed. The relevant paragraphs of the exams conduct manual were read out loud and then we went to my office to write up all the forms that are required. This took most of an hour, so the email hit the system around 16:30. No big deal, it’s already Saturday in Britain, so there was some small surprise when an adjudication arrives early Tuesday, meaning the whole thing was dealt with in a single day in Cambridge.

For those that don’t know the rules, every candidate is required to have read the rules before a series of exams; they are supplied in the Notice to Candidates, they are published (in our case, in large outside most of our exam venues); we ask about mobiles every exam, with the expression “possession is the crime” included. On this occasion, as it happened, I started the exam off myself, and, conscious that we were all becoming just a tad complacent, asked people to check pockets for paper (notes) that shouldn’t be there; a complacency demonstrated by the very few who twitched. The number of phones surrendered has dropped from typically 10% of the examinees, to one or fewer (not less) per exam. Behaviour in exams has been extremely good, thanks to my staff thoroughly understanding the position required [not by my doing, but one of them]. In the case reported, everyone was aware that the rules had been broken and everyone, including candidate and invigilator, confirmed that I had said the words I claim and that they were understood.

Ironically, the beep from the phone was his service telling him he had no credit left, though several kids tried to tell me it was his mum asking if he’d finished yet. This is immaterial, for the crime is, as I wrote above, possession of the instrument during the exam. Not even on, just on the person. The possible penalties for this malpractice range from a ticking off,through various levels of denial of result, all the way up to being banned from as many Boards as the particular Board can manage and to criminal proceedings. In this case, the Board decided to issue no grade. That is not a U or an E or an X, just nothing.


Harsh? Why think that? The rules are clear; the penalties are clear. If we don’t behave properly, that is maladministration and we will rapidly not be a Centre. We dealt with it all, received the result and then I declared what had happened without names, as here. Regular readers might understand that the expected performance for here (for  China, more than our Centre) was different. I am expected to have swept this under a meta-phorical carpet.

I hear reports of what I would call malpractice in local Centres. I was very angry when the confidential instructions for one of our lab practicals escaped from its secure conditions and that the students knew (in some sense) some of the information that the teachers can guess from the equipment list. To calm me down, one of the relevant staff told me this week of a friend of his in Beijing who discovered that all of his students had met in the lab to discuss—with a local staff member—the equipment as set up for the very same practical. Meanwhile, back in Strictsville, we have gone to lengths to keep our kids out of the relevant building and the same equipment set-up is behind locked doors even when the kids are waiting to begin on the day itself. So the story didn’t calm me down at all.

We had a local Centre [last year or the year before] where the students openly declared that they had seen a written paper the day before and had discussed questions with staff. I do hope that Centre has lost its licence and I still feel more than annoyed at the fantastic results that place reported as grades that year. And the wonderful universities those students went to. Such behaviour must be found out and stopped.


Meanwhile the honest, properly run Centres are painted with the same coat of ordure and our students will be portrayed as cheats simply because they are from here. When the ordure hits the rotating aerator is does tend to splatter around and stick to things.

Question then, to universities: maybe a B grade is sometimes better than an A?

DJS 20120509 and 20120605

malpractice |malˈpraktəs|     noun
improper, illegal, or negligent professional activity or treatment, esp. by a medical practitioner, lawyer, or public official:
victims of medical malpractice \ investigations into malpractices and abuses of power.

maladministration |malədˌminəˈstrāSHən| noun formal
inefficient or dishonest administration; mismanagement:
I found no maladministration in the committee's actions.

In 2015/6 Cambridge appointed me as an exams inspector. I continue to hope they will send me to China.


© David Scoins 2017