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10:01am on Friday, 17th August, 2007:

To Singapore!


I head off to Singapore today for State of Play V. I'm one of 6 people on the last panel of the last day, so I don't suppose that many people other than the panellists will be around to hear what we say, but hey, there are some interesting people on it so at least I'll be listening to them.

I used to go to Singapore fairly regularly — 3 times a year or so in the late 1990s. I was a moderator for the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate, and they had a big contract with a group out there called Informatics. We used to handle their regular diploma, with the University of Oxford Deligacy for Local Examinations doing the advanced ones. We had a better time of it, because Oxford signed a bad contract that meant they had to moderate all the advanced courses that Informatics put on — even the ones they hadn't been told about in advance and first sight of them was a batch of marked answer scripts to look at.

At the time, Informatics was a mess. We would regularly have to call for papers from individual examiners to be re-marked, and the questions were so predictable that once, in a meeting, I told their examination-setter exactly what the questions would be on one of her papers — and I was right. Why bother revising the whole course if all you have to do is look at the paper from 3 sessions earlier and memorise the answers? It was rather like that.

Informatics had lots of tricks up their sleeve. They would do things like count the people who hadn't attended the examination (with zero marks) in the totals to prove to us that the pass mark wasn't as high as it really was — it wasn't until we ran the stats ourselves that we found out. Also, we discovered after several years that our extended deliberations as to where the grade boundaries should lie were wasted effort, as the list of names we were sent to print onto the certificate included some in the fail category.

Plagiarism, collusion and downright cheating were rife in some centres (typically the non-Singaporean ones). One of the examiners once found an answer script that began (paraphrased): "I am sitting here watching as my teacher writes the answers on the board. Everyone is copying them down, trying to use different words so they don't all look the same. I thought you'd like to know.". The same examiner also once found a 5 Rupee note attached, with a pleading for how the person really needed to pass, his family depended on him, his sister was sick and he needed a job. 5 Rupees was worth about 5 pence at the time.

UCLES was not able to award Cambridge degrees, and UODLE was not able to award Oxford degrees. They were mainly involved in A-levels and the like. Informatics selected them because they had the magic words "Oxford" and "Cambridge" in them. eventually, they merged (UCLES took over UODLE), which was probably a good move strategically but it hit the Informatics operation. There was just too much rotten about what was happening there for them to keep passing it over, and the large numbers of UODLE people who had to be sent over to moderate the burgeoning numbers of advanced diplomas being offered meant that it was no longer profitable, either.

Although the UCLES team was smaller and tighter than the UODLE team, nevertheless the UCLES team lost personnel too. We'd started with 3 (of which I was one), then we went up to 6, but following the merge we went down again. Eventually, the merged UCLES/UODLE pulled out entirely. I wasn't there at the bitter end — I missed the last couple of moderations. My contract was not renewed after I made a remark at a meeting reporting to senior Informatics executives that the senior examiner deemed too critical of their company. I'd been told that on no account should I say anything negative about any aspect of the Informatics operation, no matter how glaringly obvious its shortcomings were. What I said was something along the lines of how the Indonesian centres were catching up to the Singaporean and Malaysian centres in terms of the thoroughness of their examination procedures, thereby implicitly suggesting they weren't perfect. I wasn't actually all that upset, as the job didn't pay all that well and it took up a lot of time. One of the main attractions was the spare day at the start of the week, to get over jet lag. As I don't get jet lag, this meant I could do touristy things. Singapore only has about a week's worth of tourist attractions, though, and I'd seen them all, so that meant that much as I liked the place, I wasn't too annoyed not to be able to go back.

By coincidence, after Informatics and UCLES severed their ties, Informatics looked for some other universities to moderate their examinations. Naturally they went for Oxford Brookes (I rather suspect because of the "Oxford"), but one of the other places they signed up was Portsmouth. One of the examiners I used to meet there (she's since retired) had the same moderation job that I'd had 10 years earlier. I asked her if Informatics had improved any, then had to listen to 30 minutes of ranting that suggested perhaps it still had some way to go.

I really like Singapore as a place to visit, though, and am looking forward to seeing how much it's changed. I expect I'll have Internet access there, but if I don't, well, I'll continue to write QBlog posts anyway and upload them when I get back.

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Copyright © 2007 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).