Donkeys in Bathrooms: Part 4

(Continued from

I must apologise if I appear to be name-dropping unnecessarily. My brief at the IB was basically to link the ideas and visions being floated by some of the most brilliant brains in international education with the day-to-day experience of teachers endeavouring to implement those principles in the classroom. Inevitably, my humble path crossed the vast highways of those exalted minds, who inhabited very human bodies, and I was privileged in that respect. I’m pleased to find so much about them on the Internet. But many of those labouring in classrooms around the world were equally inspiring, and I also consider it a privilege to have been on friendly terms with many remarkable people at all points on the educational spectrum.

I never discovered why my title was Registrar. I never received a job description. I replaced two people, one of whom dealt with examiners and the other with schools. My task was basically liaison with both examiners and schools plus all school-related business including information, documentation and conferences. During my five years, the number of schools quintupled, so clearly the job also evolved into something quite different from how it started out.

It was made clear from the beginning that there was no money for a secretary for me, and I would have to do my own typing. Innocently, I looked forward to a nice, stress-free eight-to-five job. I was provided with a state-of-the-art IBM Executive electric typewriter, with proportional type. That was quite complicated, because if you made a mistake, and had to backspace to overwrite (after blanking it out with Tippex) the number of times you hit the backspace key depended on the width of the letter. Only one backspace was needed for ‘i’, two or three for most other letters, but ‘m’ and ‘w’ required four. A good typist produced documents that looked almost as if they were printed, and these machines were used to type the examination papers, Diplomas and Certificates as well as all the literature that was photocopied and sent to schools. I spent most of my first week trying to produce a respectable bilingual copy of a circular to schools, wasting paper, typewriter ribbon and bottles of Tippex, before I mastered my Executive. I never worked eight to five.

IBM Executive typewriter. Photo credit: Wikipedia

My predecessor who dealt with the examiners had been an excellent typist and had also typed out most of the exam papers and Diplomas, hence the Executive typewriter. I pointed out that with my miserable typing skills, it would be a waste of money to employ me doing that when my talents obviously lay elsewhere. Thanks to my dactylographic ineptitude, I was spared the tedium of typing out exam papers, Diplomas and Certificates, but I still had to write several letters a day as well as translating, typing and photocopying circulars and preparing the handbook of instructions for the teachers implementing the programme in the schools.

Not long after I started we had an invasion by a group of experts from Sheffield University who had been called in to do a feasibility study on the IBO and make suggestions for an efficiently run administration. There had been a crisis over the funding of the IB project, which was still in its infancy, and UNESCO had backed out. Now the number of participating schools was increasing and they were being called upon to make a financial contribution: it was therefore vital that the organisation was seen to be organised in deed as well as in name. Tasks, roles and systems needed to be examined and defined. Obviously, in that first month I had no idea of what my job actually entailed so whatever information I provided was probably worthless. By the time the feasibility study was produced, it bore little resemblance to the actual (dis)organisation. 

Since my original mandate had included liaising with the Chief Examiners to chivvy them into producing examination papers on time, one of the first things I did in October 1976 was to go with Gérard and Ruth to the Chief Examiners Meeting in Oxford, an excellent opportunity to meet all the main people involved in creating the examination. It turned out later that I was too busy with other things to be involved in much examiner chivvying.

Owing to the need to watch the pennies, the cheapest flights available were booked for us from Geneva to London and we then took the train to Oxford. The flights in question went at an inconvenient time and included an overnight stay in a budget hotel. We didn’t need the hotel, and managed to get to Oxford on time, where we stayed at St Anne’s College. A year or so later, however, my flight was delayed and I didn’t arrive in London till late. The last train to Oxford had gone, so I was obliged to use my voucher for the hotel. This was an experience! I was put in a room with six beds, all occupied by complete strangers, male and female mixed. The sound of snoring and the rich smells made sleep difficult, and I was glad to arrive at St Anne’s just after breakfast the next morning.  

St Anne’s College, University of Oxford, Photo credit Wikipedia

Shortly before or after the 1976 Chief Examiners meeting, money was found to allow D from the Southampton base to visit Geneva for a few days for an orientation meeting. She stayed with Ruth to save hotel costs and was keen to explain to me, the newcomer, how the languages operation in Southampton worked and what I would need to do to collaborate with her. However, there was a misunderstanding since I was told that she was there to liaise with Ruth and have a relaxing break, and I wasn’t to bother her with any work, so I kept out of her way. Eventually she managed to pin me down and clarify why she had come. We were about the same age, had much in common and got along very well. She also filled in the 10% of the information missing from Ruth’s briefings. And I got an excellent overview of how Languages A and B were administered.

There was a wonderfully convivial atmosphere in the IBO at that time. It was a rather unconventional and idealistic idea that appealed to rather unconventional and idealistic individuals, and many gave of their time voluntarily. It was also very useful for me at this juncture to meet my administrative colleagues in England who were also involved in the nitty-gritty work of running the operation. It was no use claiming that we were honours graduates with professional academic experience and hence above menial tasks. We were all having to roll up our sleeves and do our own typing, filing, cutting and pasting, photocopying, trouble-shooting, passing on critical information to those who needed it and generally picking up the pieces and implementing the brilliant ideas being generated in the airy-fairy realms of academic Utopia above us. The IB may have appeared to glide along with swan-like calm, but we were the feet paddling crazily below the surface.

The number of schools approved to participate in the IB multiplied quite quickly from about thirty when I started, and it rapidly became apparent that dealing with them occupied me full time even after I got my African secretary, later replaced by my lovely Irish girl. This meant that I had less and less to do with the physical production of the examinations, which suited me well. As a former teacher, my interests lay in curriculum development. A lot of emphasis was placed on the fact that the IB was not just an exam but a programme, and so a great deal of information was constantly being exchanged between the organisation and the schools about implementing the curriculum as well as procedures for registering for the exams.

The IB Diploma required candidates to take examinations in 6 subjects, plus submit an extended essay, follow a course in Theory of Knowledge and be involved in CASS activities (Creative. Artistic, Social Services, Sports). Very bright students might be permitted to take seven subjects. Many schools would ask for clarification on these requirements, and I would be asked for instance whether knitting could be included in the Art course, or if an Australian student could submit a composition for didgeridoo as part of his music syllabus.

On one occasion, I was asked if a particularly gifted Scandinavian girl could take eight subjects. I consulted the oracle about this, and the consensus was no, she shouldn’t focus so much on academic work but invest her spare time in her CASS activities. The girl, annoyed, took seven subjects for her IB Diploma, and if I remember correctly she gained maximum points. I happen to know, however, since she was a contemporary of my daughter at the International School of Geneva and one of my husband’s students, that she also took a few A-levels at the same time and obtained excellent results in those. She would undoubtedly have managed eight or even nine subjects, though they wouldn’t have fitted on the Diploma transcript! She is now a professor at Oxford University. 

My job was not made easier by the fact that I would sometimes get letters from several different teachers within a particular school all asking for similar information, and it was clear that some circulars sent to schools stopped at the Principal’s office and didn’t filter down, so at my suggestion each school appointed one person to be IB coordinator who would ensure that information was passed on within the school as required. This simple solution made things much easier and a pleasant aspect of my job was that I was able to build up friendly personal relations with these coordinators. Around the same time, my typing skills having vastly improved, I introduced a monthly bulletin in English and French containing all the updated information needed by the coordinators and teachers. This replaced the previous unsatisfactory system of circulars sent at irregular intervals, some of which never arrived and the schools didn’t know they were missing.

As the IB expanded, a regional office was set up in New York to serve the North American schools and others followed in Manila then Singapore for southeast Asia, and Paris for France. The London office also served as a regional office for schools in the UK and northern Europe. I was responsible for the liaison with these regional offices which took some of the burden from my shoulders as far as the schools were concerned.

We had no subject officers in those days so I was also involved in organising curriculum conferences in various disciplines, for which I had to prepare all the working papers and write the reports. Again, although it meant a lot of typing, cutting, pasting and photocopying, as well as licking envelopes, I enjoyed this area of my job as it also took me to most of these meetings. I got to know many teachers in the various schools in addition to the examiners, which made it easier for me to advise and inform on a personal basis. My own teaching experience was useful in many ways. A side effect was that I also learnt a great amount of maths, geography, history, biology etc. Economics was the only subject that totally baffled me.

The only field I didn’t deal with was Languages A and B, which was a complicated and highly specialised area taken care of by D in Southampton. An exception to this was the Arabic examiner, who was an interesting character based in Geneva. He had developed a scheme for towing icebergs from Antarctica in order to irrigate the Sahara – this was before climate change became a global issue – which he had presented to the UN, but I don’t think anything came of it. He would come to my office to check the papers very scrupulously because the photocopier had a bad habit of adding spots that could change the meaning of words in Arabic. He was a small, mouselike man, and would sit there reading through the paper and declaiming it all aloud, painting out unwanted dots with Tippex or adding them with a black biro, till he was satisfied it was perfect. Then he would bow, say “Adieu, Madame,” and scamper out.

I certainly couldn’t complain that my job was in any way boring!

7 thoughts on “Donkeys in Bathrooms: Part 4

  1. Pingback: Donkeys in Bathrooms: Part 5 | catterel

  2. What an interesting read and how fortunate that you are giving the words in print for posterity to dig into how it all came about. I discovered Mr. Gerard Renaud passed away just a few weeks ago in Nice. As for the bright Scandinavian student. I am not surprised, my late wife was educated as a high school teacher in Finland finishing her degree at the Jyvaskyla university. Finland is not strictly Scandinavian but it’s education system is revered world wide. I recently went through my wife’s school certificates; all top marks in over ten subjects, languages included. Her worst subject was sport, a mere 6+.
    I do hope this piece of history will get published and put into libraries!

    • I’m sorry to learn about Gérard’s death, didn’t realise he was still alive as I was writing. The young genius was Danish – reading Nietzsche in German at the age of 14, and understanding it all – but I also have a young Finnish friend here who is equally brilliant. Must be the stimulating climate up there that magnifies and multiples the brain cells!

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