One evening last week, I got a call from Christian, giving me his weekly update on school and life in general. He’s studying for WAEC exams in May that will decide his final results from secondary school and, hopefully, put him on track to attend university. I asked the usual boring questions about how hard he was studying and whether he was making the most of his time. Then, he mentioned that he was required to pay yet another fee and told me the amount.
Immediately, I was annoyed. When I paid his fees at the beginning of term, I was assured that there were no more fees, surcharges or anything else to come. The line was breaking up as he tried to explain the so-called ‘cooperation fee’ to me. “Who are we supposed to be cooperating with?” I asked, “And what do you get in exchange for this extra charge?” Before he could answer, the network failed completely and I was left confused. Sensibly, Chris sent the number of the vice-principal, suggesting that I call him for a better explanation.
The next morning, I called and spoke to a man whom I found hard to believe was educated, much less an educator. He struggled to explain but did make clear that his school would not benefit from this new demand. Instead, the money was going to a ‘committee’ of teachers and students. He ended the call abruptly, recommending that I call the principal if I wanted further clarification. Another number, another call and this time the person sounded like he could be a senior educator. He was more articulate and I began to get a clearer picture.
Principal: “It’s an external exam and can be difficult for the students, so we try to assist them as much as possible.”
Me: “What kind of ‘assistance’ are we talking about – mock exams or extra tuition?”
Principal: “Well… it’s more like assistance with the exam itself…”
Me: “You mean inside the examination hall? Isn’t that cheating?”
Principal: “Well…. we just try to help them with the answers, to make sure they pass…”
That was enough for me. I thanked him for being honest and told him that I would not be ‘cooperating’. In addition, I asked him to ensure that Christian would not be victimised for the lack of payment. I hung up feeling quite shocked.
The next morning, I mentioned the incident to a colleague at work. “It’s normal,” she said, matter-of-factly. “There are lots of special ‘learning centres’ that guarantee exam passes for your children, as long as you pay the exhorbitant fees.” She went on to explain how these special schools helped both primary and secondary students to ace critical passing-out tests, by a tried and tested method – giving them the answers. In addition, they turned a blind eye to blatant copying and collaboration, as long as the children did it quietly. During her own time at school, she had been offered this service and turned it down. I guess there were some principles back then.
Slowly, it dawned on me that I had been so naïve. No wonder Christian’s relatives were so keen for him to switch, mid-year, from St. Patrick’s in Calabar and go to this new school. I was told that they had an excellent track record in preparing students for these exams and I agreed on that basis. Now I know why they came so highly recommended – they know how to cheat.
Suddenly, some of my early experiences as an employer in Nigeria came flooding back. Back then, I could never understand how candidates, often with Master’s degrees, could appear so highly qualified on paper but be so hugely disappointing in the flesh. Inarticulate, with poor grammar and a tentative grasp on subject matter they were meant to be experts in, interviewing them was always a depressing experience. I can still remember the double-Master’s guy who was dumbstruck once we asked him to switch off his brilliant presentation and face our questions without referring to the slides. Then there was the ex-beauty queen whose thesis was a complete mystery to her, when I invited her to recall any aspect of what she had written to gain her degree.
Several years ago, when I decided to sponsor Christian, this shy young boy from a village high in the Obudu mountains, it was to give him a chance to succeed in life – but nothing was guaranteed. I would pay and he would study hard – that was the deal we struck. He’s had his challenges and I’m sure there are more to come, but he will have to learn that success cannot be bought and that you shouldn’t try to cheat your way through school or life.
I have no idea what will happen in these upcoming exams but I pray that Christian is studying hard. The most important thing for me is that he tries his best and keeps trying until reaches his goal. I’m hoping he is learning that if someone offers you a shortcut through dishonest means, you should always refuse to cooperate.
“The more people rationalize cheating, the more it becomes a culture of dishonesty. And that can become a vicious, downward cycle. Because suddenly, if everyone else is cheating, you feel a need to cheat, too.” Stephen Covey
For more on Christian’s journey, read ‘Just do what you can‘