This is a drama which has been developing over the past month or so. It started out with a bang, we were all scandalised, and then after the necessary consequences it petered out.
A couple of weeks later and all examinatorial hell broke loose, the Ministry is involved (doesn’t that sound Harry Potter-esque?) and the Secretary of State for Education interrupted some debate about how teachers really should be working much harder than they are (does the Minster have any experience in front of a classroom, for any significant amount of time, whatsoever?) in order to make An Announcement.
If you have absolutely no knowledge of how secondary education exams are organised in the Netherlands, here’s a very brief summary.
Public exams in the Netherlands are sat in late Spring and early Summer of each year, in – usually – two separate periods. The first (eerste tijdvak) is in late May, and the second (wait for it…tweede tijdvak) in mid-June. There are no exam boards, as might be familiar in the UK; it’s all centralised. What will be familiar to people regardless of country is the level of security. People who work on these exams have to swear not to disclose their work, promise to sacrifice their firstborns if they do (I’m sure it’s in the latest euthanasia law somewhere), and there are all kinds of procedures to be followed in terms of exam papers being delivered, stored, opened at the beginning of a session, and so on (on the flip side, some aspects about school life in NL may shock visitors in their informality, but don’t let that deceive you).
The first exam period is the major one of the year: it lasts about two weeks and all exams for all levels of the secondary school system is timetabled in. The results turnaround is astonishingly quick for someone used to the British system; within a fortnight candidates will hear whether they’ve passed all their exams and consequently whether they’ve got their diploma. If they haven’t ticked all the necessary boxes, but haven’t done so bad, they can resit a very small number of exams in the second exam period. If they totally crashed and burned then they’ll have to repeat their final year at school.
The point here is that all candidates will sit exams in the first period, whilst a relatively tiny number will be resitting in the second.
It was a dreary day in May….
In 2013 the first period ended with the written exam for French at what in the UK might be called ‘higher tier‘ on Wednesday 29th May. There are worse subjects to sit as your last exam, surely. This was going well until, on Tuesday 28th May, a document appeared on the internet, claiming to be a French exam. Specifically, the French exam. Which was to be sat the day after. It doesn’t take a huge amount of insight to realise that this isn’t how things are supposed to work.
At some point the Ministry (or the Education Inspectorate, which is part of the Ministry) announced that yes, the document found on the internet (along with a letter bemoaning so-called security surrounding the whole organisation) was indeed the French paper due to be sat in one day’s time. Another paper was prepared, and the French exam was postponed until Thursday 30th May for the entire country.
Meanwhile, it turned out that the school with security measures more akin to fishnet tights was the Ibn Ghaldoun, a Muslim school in Rotterdam. The Dutch internet promptly digs up every piece of dirt on Ibn Ghaldoun it can find, the rumours start flying and the ultra-nationalist party has a field day.
In an immortal line that could have come straight out of The Prisoner of Azkaban, ‘the Ministry started investigating.’
Things went quiet. People should be nervous when Dutch people go quiet.
The dam broke
In early June the news broke that two school pupils, both in their exam year and both from the Rotterdam area, had been detained on suspicion of exam theft. Soon a third was arrested too, on the same charge. Not only that, but French was not the only exam which had been stolen.
It was made all the more pressing by the time constraints. By now all those exams, French or no, had been marked, marked a second time, differences in scores had been discussed, and the formulae used to calculate the final grades were in the pipeline. A countryful of 16-, 17- and 18-year-olds were due to collect their results in the week after these arrests had been made, but the ominous news from Rotterdam had compounded the nerves.
After that weekend, on 11th June, the Inspectorate made their report: not one, not two, but thirteen exams had been stolen, and all from the same school. Subsequently, all exams at Ibn Ghaldoun are declared void, meaning that all candidates at that school have to resit their exams in the second period.
The consequences for candidates in the rest of the country were unclear, beyond that ‘Foundation Tier’ students who had sat Economics would, in any event, learn their results a day after they were due to – which was the next day, 12th June. In fact for the rest of the country’s Foundation pupils it wasn’t certain whether they would get their results on the 12th, and if they did, whether they would even mean anything.
We would learn more on the 13th at about 5pm.
Media moments galore
The morning of the 13th dawned. In a spirit of keeping things going as much as possible, schools opened to their ‘Foundation’ pupils and gave them the news that they could. For some it was good news, for some resits hung on the horizon, and others…were still in limbo.
The afternoon came, and with it the tension rose. The Inspectorate’s website crashed – and for a Dutch website that’s saying something – from the traffic. In true Dutch style, the decision was made to keep the public up-to-date via Twitter.
5pm came, and 5pm went. The national broadcaster had a live stream going from parliament, but the Secretary of State was nowhere to be seen, either in the debate about a wall in Israel and/or Palestine (I confess I wasn’t paying that much attention), or that about how teachers can most efficiently use their time (see my snide remarks about ministers at the top of this post). We waited. Pupils (and others) bombarded the Inspectorate’s twitter feed with pleas for information. I learnt that I dislike political meetings in Dutch as much as in any other language.
I have good news and I have bad news
Finally the Secretary of State arrived.
The good news was that after a whole bunch of number-crunching – and I would love to pay a visit to the Inspectorate and find out exactly what kind of crunching actually went on, because I’m a nerd like that – the conclusion was that there had been no wide-scale exam fraud across the country. In effect this allowed a collective sigh of relief to ascend from the vast majority of secondary schools, because no fraud means no enforced repeating of exams, no requirement for those exams to possibly be resat (in the little-known and almost mythical third exam period in September), and no crisis when it came to a year’s cohort of students not able to start in higher or further education.
The bad news was that the figure of thirteen stolen exams was conservative, and that the number – including that French paper that had started it all – had now jumped to twenty-four.
(At this point I was simply shaking my head. Losing one exam is unfortunate. Losing two is carelessness. Twenty-four is…uh….)
But there were loose ends to tie up; there were suspicions that the stolen exams had been shared, or sold, to candidates at other schools than the Ibn Ghaldoun. Investigations were continuing, but in the meantime those who had sat exams with foreknowledge of their contents were given a chance to save some of their honour and confess as much to their Headmasters by 6pm on Friday. They would be reported to the police and have to resit all their exams. The alternative, which involved the possibility of being caught afterwards, would mean being reported (with whatever consequences that come attached with it) and being barred from any exams until next year.
Those were the salient points that emerged from The Hague on Wednesday evening. But there was much more to be heard, principally that one of the pupils who had been arrested was the child of a Physics teacher at Ibn Ghaldoun, who latter had, a few years back, in fact been Headmaster. During his tenure he had been in trouble for misappropriating school subsidies, using the money to instead fund a school trip to Mecca.
In addition – no, really, it gets worse – it transpired that the safe at Ibn Ghaldoun in which exams were supposed to be kept only had one key. The others had been…lost. Instead an entire room was used as a ‘safe’, with exams stacked neatly on tables. The thieves (who by all accounts seem to have planned this down to the last detail) got in via a skylight in an adjoining room.
The ultra-nationalist party moved on from a field day to a massive picnic. People’s eyes start popping out at the sheer incredulity of it. Calls to close the school arise.
Is it over? Ha ha ha! Heh. Huh.
After the 6pm deadline last Friday evening, schools had until 10am on Monday to submit the details and so on of their pupils to the Ministry. A total of 26 candidates is released – the Secretary of State is convinced there are more – and the investigation continues. This week saw the start of the resit period for the vast majority of the country, and for one school in Rotterdam the second pass at the first period. Which exams are being sat when, in the latter case, has not been released.
The arrests continue; I’m not really keeping count, but there must be about half a dozen people, all connected to Ibn Ghaldoun in some way, who are either in custody or on some kind of bail.
Meanwhile the number of stolen exams has risen to 27. You can’t make this stuff up.
All you’d need is a love story subplot with some illicit sexual liason in it, and you’d have a blockbuster. If it’s not already being done then gee golly gosh this is my new project in life.