Donkeys in Bathrooms: Part 3

(Continued from

Our daily routine in the Geneva office started at 8 am and included an important coffee break at about 10 am, when we all met together to discuss whatever business had come in the mail or by phone (there were no e-mails, or other electronic means of communication in those days) and generally catch up on what each of us was doing. Visitors might drop in at these coffee breaks: Alec or Robert if they were in Switzerland, or eminent members of IB Council or Executive Committee such as John Goormaghtigh, colleagues from the IBE in the Palais Wilson annex who allowed us occasionally to use their Telex for urgent communications, and also sometimes examiners or teachers from local participating schools or far flung parts who happened to be visiting Geneva, and occasionally a student wandered in by chance.

These were easy-going egalitarian sessions, with no one pulling rank. Whoever was there spoke their mind freely, and there was mutual respect for one another’s opinions, whether DG, professor or student. Usually, in IB administrative matters a course of action would be decided by consensus although this often involved a stand-off between Gérard Renaud and Ruth Bonner, who would argue in circles until finally each was representing the viewpoint originally defended or proposed by the other, whereupon they would agree on a compromise.

Ruth was responsible for the day-to-day office management, her inefficiency matched only by her energy and charm. She was successful in hiding her inefficiency from all but those directly affected by it, and it was her charm and energy that aroused general admiration. I wasted several hours in my first weeks owing to Ruth’s inadequate explanations of what I needed to do. She had a knack of giving 90% of the required information and withholding the essential 10% that would ensure the task was done correctly. This caused a lot of extra work, particularly when Ruth and her daughter were sent off to explain to the programmers what the criteria were for the computer printouts needed by schools and examiners. Neither of them had an analytical mind, and it was several years before the printouts contained all the information required, by which time IBO had its own computers and IT experts.

Producing the annual examination was also Ruth’s domain. When I arrived in 1976, the system was as follows: the Chief Examiner in each subject finalised the papers at all levels and the examination papers were typed on typewriters in the Geneva office by whoever was available. The examinations were then translated into English or French, depending on the language originally used, since all papers had to be in both languages. This occasionally challenged us: I remember on one History paper, there was a question about “la bataille d’Angleterre” which stumped the English translator, too young to remember the Battle of Britain, and sometimes there were difficulties with British and American usage. The translations had to be proofread and corrected as necessary by a native speaker proficient in the particular subject, usually an assistant examiner.

The Chief Examiner would proofread the papers and send them back for correction, and they would be photocopied according to the numbers needed for each school. The copies were then put in a sealed envelope with instructions for the invigilators (which the Americans called proctors) and the name of the school, subject and level written on the envelope. Then they were despatched to schools all over the world from the Post Office in the basement of the Palais Wilson.

This worked well enough with the small numbers involved in the pilot project, but once there were more than three dozen participating schools the system was stretched to its limits. As more and more schools joined, it became increasingly obvious that not only was more personnel needed, but that the entire system needed an overhaul. However, we were all too busy to sit down and figure out better ways of doing things. Ruth summed it up: “No time to be efficient!”

It was all very hectic, and had to be squeezed into a very tight time frame. Casual help was hired, usually students, to do the donkey work of photocopying, collating, stuffing envelopes, wrapping and tying parcels (the Swiss Post Office at that time demanded that parcels be finished with string tied in a bow – knots would be refused!) etc. The only space available for them to work was in the storage rooms – former bathrooms – and there was lots of galloping up and down the corridors at this time of year. It was Tom Winnifrith*, Chief Examiner for English A, who first referred to the exams as depending on the work of “donkeys in bathrooms”.

After each exam, schools mailed parcels of scripts to examiners (who could be anywhere in the world), these were marked, graded and moderated, and results came in by post or phone. Most chief examiners were prompt with this, but one or two informed us of the grades only at the last minute, and I remember sitting writing these in by hand on the computer printouts as the chief examiner for chemistry dictated them to me over the phone. Then finally the diplomas and certificates were typed out by IBO staff and despatched to the schools. This also had to be done to a very tight schedule, since European universities demanded results before the end of July, otherwise students weren’t placed. Everyone put in a lot of overtime.

Computers were not easily available in the seventies, and PCs were still being developed. We bought time from the mainframe computer at the ILO (International Labour Office), as there was no question of having one of our own. Everything had to be done manually. The school submitted a form for each student with the subjects at each level, and these were punched onto cards by bored girls working like automata. The computer printed out concertina lists of entries per candidate by school, which I sent to the schools to check. I then had to make a list of amendments, which were fed into the computer, which printed out another set of concertinas with the entries in each subject by school. Once this was approved, the Chief Examiner in each subject allocated schools to his assistants, and we sent the candidate lists off to the appropriate assistant.

Finally, when the results came in and had been moderated and finalised, they were again punched by hand onto cards and fed into the computer so that it could produce the last lot of concertina results by school and subject. However, we had to check every single one of these and correct any errors by hand. By 1978 the computer was also printing the Diplomas and Certificates which had previously been typed. But even with the ILO computer, it was still tedious, time-consuming work.

Results were sent by post to schools all over the world followed by the parcels of Diplomas and Certificates, and in some cases took two weeks or more to arrive. In fact, postal delays were one of the bugbears we had to struggle with, as not only were schools located all over the globe but examiners also. A school in India might have to send its candidates’ papers to England, USA, France, and Singapore depending on where the various assistant examiners for each subject were located. In rare cases, we were allowed to use diplomatic bags: this was one of the advantages of being in Geneva, where many diplomats’ children attended the International School. After marking and grading the papers, the assistants had to send the papers – or samples – to the Chief Examiner for moderation, and that could also be on the other side of the world.

It’s hard to believe that the IB was such a success given the constraints and circumstances we were working under. We did have electric typewriters – golf ball typewriters had come in by the end of the seventies, a very useful advance – plus the photocopying machine, and we used a great deal of Tippex, scissors and glue. Communications on a global scale went via snail mail and telephone or – in urgent cases – the IBE telex. The logistics were unbelievable, especially considering that some schools and examiners were in remote locations. Yet examination papers, audio cassettes and scripts winged their way around the world in jiffy bags and parcels sealed by yards of brown sticky tape.  Examinations were held as scheduled, Diplomas and Certificates received in time. Universities accepted our students, and schools were clamouring to join the club.

* Dr Tom Winnifrith Sr, father of the journalist (, in the 1970’s a delightfully eccentric professor of English at Warwick University, who always looked as if he had spent the night under a bridge, and devoted his spare time to studying the Vlachs in Greece. “The Vlachs, History of a Balkan People”by TJ Winnifrith
See   and  .

5 thoughts on “Donkeys in Bathrooms: Part 3

  1. Pingback: Donkeys in Bathrooms: Part 4 | catterel

  2. Easy going egalitarianism is not how I would describe what the Ib has become now .
    I first taught diploma in 1994 and it still felt like belonging to a wonderful enlightened academic experiment . I have just finished teaching it and I could not wait to escape from its dreary formulaic mediocrity. How times change!
    Looking forward to next part!

    • Many very fiddly little jobs that a computer would do in no time! I think the idea of bows on parcels was that it was easier to open them and check the contents if necessary, but in fact we used to tie a knot to ensure it stayed closed, then tie the ends in a bow on top. Ridiculous!

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