Changing minds at exam time

  • 2001-05-31
  • Ivars Indans
The end of May is usually associated with state exam time in schools in the Baltic states. A lot of media attention has previously been focused on the objectivity of the exams' organization. For several years the media at this time of year has reflected the scandals related to the alleged illegal distribution of exam questions, corruption in responsible government institutions, the misuse of official positions and the inability of the Ministry of Education to provide fair procedures.

Unfortunately, this year is no exception. Quoting the Latvian journalist Sandris Metuzals from the Internet news portal Apollo, "School kids are already saving money and are waiting for somebody to offer to get all the exams questions, which are supposed to be confidential."

At some point one might agree with this journalist's conclusion that youngsters are learning the principle that everything in life can be bought. The current situation regarding school exams creates the distorted illusion that corruption might provide short-term benefits.

What should be done to solve this problem? One option is to improve the work of the Ministry of Education by increasing institutional controls, mechanisms and monitoring procedures. This would definitely improve the quality of the exams and their procedural organization.

However, it might be difficult to solve the problem just by institutional means. Even the most perfect organizational procedures and the best protection systems provided by police and security organizations would not change youngsters' attitudes that everything can be bought. The problems are much deeper and are related to attitudes toward corruption within society.

According to European Union Phare project surveys, more than half of respondents do not believe they can do anything against corruption. Sociological surveys show that many people do not give bribes not because it is wrong, but because they do not have enough money. If society is tolerant about corruption then it becomes more and more difficult to positively influence policy makers and officials.

However, there are some positive trends related to the next generation. According to the survey, younger people clearly have a more negative opinion toward corruption than middle-aged or elderly people. This is a positive sign that should be used by government and non-governmental organizations, schools and universities to promote and strengthen civic consciousness and intolerance of corruption.

Phare has experienced a positive reaction in this regard, which might be used as a case study for future activities. It organized a national competition for schools called "Together Against Corruption." Approximately 300 schools from all the regions of Latvia participated in the project, with 1,100 entries being submitted for evaluation.

The Phare team visited 25 schools throughout Latvia organizing debates and discussions about corruption-related issues. The general perception of the project was very positive.

While visiting the schools, the experts found that the majority of the students considered money not the only thing of value in life.

The competition also showed that children, much more than adults, are positive about the future. A competition like this is just one way of promoting civic consciousness and intolerance regarding corruption, though it should be remembered that it also depends on teachers. The more effort teachers invest in children, the more developed are the youths' awareness that corrupt individuals are not the right role models.

The organization of the schools project is also an attempt to approach adults through their children. Children can probably deliver the right message to their elders better than anybody else.

Finally, it is important to mention that belief in ethical values, especially about corruption, is a necessary precondition to solving the state exam problem in schools in the long term. Promoting intolerance about corruption is not a task for one competition or one project; it must be the work of an entire society.