Donkeys in Bathrooms: Part 5

(Continued from

Towards the end of my time with IBO, I was also sent to inspect a few schools that had applied to participate, and to assess whether they had adequate facilities. Two of these were in Barcelona, where we already had one participating school, so I visited all three. The heads of these schools were all keen to make a good impression on me so I was wined and dined and introduced to Barcelona nightlife. Another was on Lake Como. They were so busy showing me around and giving me a huge lunch that we were late leaving and I arrived in Milan airport after my plane had left. Luckily I was able to get a seat on a plane to Zurich with a connection to Geneva so I made it home in time for bed.

As I was responsible for schools, I was sometimes visited unexpectedly and spontaneously by students or parents, who didn’t always grasp that I might not be available to see them without an appointment. One youth who walked unannounced into my office told me he had dropped out of school in Germany just before doing his Abitur, and had ambitions to be a sculptor. As he poured out his story to me, I referred him to the Ecole Autogérée in Geneva, which was a self-supporting alternative education project mainly targeting dropouts, and thought no more of it. It was obviously the right solution; he adopted me as a kind of godmother, and came by at irregular intervals over the next three years to report on his progress. Eventually, he gained his Diploma and a place at university. To show his gratitude, he brought me a very nice chunky drinking glass.

Another day, I was visited by an elderly German, a tall, imposing looking gentleman with a limp, who expressed some concerns about his daughter who was studying at Atlantic College. I was getting tired of wealthy, self-important parents trying to influence the examination results by ingratiating themselves with me, and gave him short shrift, explaining politely but rather curtly that he should discuss these matters with the head of his daughter’s school. When I mentioned his visit at our coffee break, and disclosed his name, the reaction from my older colleagues, who had first-hand adult experience of WW2, was shock and awe.

“Don’t you know who that was?” they asked. I confessed my ignorance.

Axel von dem Bussche was the man who tried to assassinate Hitler! And he used to be headmaster of Salem School! Why on earth didn’t you ask him to join us for coffee?”

I felt rather embarrassed at not having recognised my distinguished visitor, but I appreciated his gentlemanly deference towards me, especially the fact that he hadn’t tried to put any pressure on me. His daughter did get her diploma, I believe by her own efforts, with no intervention from on high.

After the participating schools had agreed to contribute to the funding of the IB, an annual Heads’ Conference was set up. Once again it fell to me to organise this, and thus I also got to know the principals of the schools quite well. IB in those days was very much like a friendly international club, rather than an examination board.

A wonderful moment occurred during a Heads’ Conference at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, when the principal of an International School in Kerala, India, ran into the Sri Lankan IB Coordinator of a Geneva school. A double take, and then a hug: both men had studied together many years before, had lost touch, and had no idea that their paths were about to converge again. These two self-contained, respectable gentlemen, now in their forties, stood before me like two five-year-olds, with tears of joy running down their faces. Their stories of how they came to be where they were at that point would need a whole book to itself.

After a meeting in snowy Vienna in January 1979, one headmaster commented that it would be nice to choose a warmer venue next time, maybe in the South Seas. I enthusiastically agreed, and a few weeks later received a letter from him on IB matters, ending with the words “keep your grass skirt pruned!” As the post circulated among us all at that time, the remark caused a certain amount of speculation at our morning coffee session.  

In 1979 I had a number of IB conferences to organise and attend, where I discovered that I could translate simultaneously as well as consecutively between English and French. This skill came in useful a few years later, when I set up my own translation/interpreting agency. I enjoyed these conferences, where I was doing what I was good at, and my work was appreciated by the heads of schools, examiners and various teachers who attended. But 1980 and 81 also saw some internal upheavals in the IBO.

When Ruth retired in 1980, I was nominally “promoted” and given another misleading title, Executive Secretary, but I was still doing the same work. This was the beginning of the technology revolution. In 1980 the Geneva office acquired a PC and a young Vietnamese woman was appointed to operate it and adapt procedures for computerisation. We also got a new-fangled fax machine – a huge, unwieldy monster that augured things to come. Negotiations began for the Geneva office to move to a new site in Grand-Saconnex. I was open to the new technology, and eager to learn how to use a computer (which I did in November 1981) but I was very unsure what role the Geneva office was going to play in the IBO and what my own position was likely to be in future.

Finances were always an important issue. The Organisation had been accused of elitism, a result of the careful vetting of schools approved to participate. This had been necessary in the early years, when the IBO was working to build up a reputation for excellence, but now the Diploma was well recognised by most countries and universities, and the net was widened to include institutions that were explicitly run for profit, as well as the original not-for-profit schools. As the Organisation began to expand, and more funds became available, two important posts were created and filled by people from outside of IB: Director of Examinations and Director of Curriculum. These two newcomers were soon causing hefty ripples in our small pond by making very drastic but much needed changes. No more donkeys in bathrooms: henceforth, IBO was to be fully professional.

It was decided that the entire examinations operation should be transferred to the UK, where overhead costs were lower than in Switzerland. Languages A and B continued to be administered from Southampton whilst the rest of the examination operation was transferred from Geneva to offices known as IBEX. These were initially in Southampton, then London and later, chiefly for financial reasons, on the premises of Bath University. At that point, Languages A and B were also incorporated into IBEX so the staff of the London and Southampton offices had either to leave or move. Plans were made to hold additional November examinations for schools in the southern hemisphere, and Spanish became a third working language. The number of staff increased greatly, and everything was totally reorganised. That was the end of the IBO as I had known it.

Moreover, in mid 1981 my husband took a job in the canton of St Gallen, and we went to live in a small rural village at the opposite end of Switzerland. The IBO was reluctant to let me go, so we agreed I’d work partly from home and commute (a five-hour journey each way), spending 4 days a week in Geneva, staying in a hotel. That was not as easy as it sounds, even though I had been able to dictate the terms of my job – the two places were so different it was like going to the Moon and back.

The Palais Wilson was on the edge of Geneva’s red light district. Economy was still IBO’s watchword, so for the first week of my commuting, I was booked into a cheap hotel a hundred metres or so away down the rue des Pâquis, which seemed innocuous enough. However, during my first night there I realised from the constant noise and banging of doors that it was a maison de passe, so in spite of its cheapness I insisted on removing to a more respectable place just around the corner. This was more expensive but also more salubrious – and above all, quieter – but my commute was not a satisfactory arrangement from a family perspective. At the end of October 1981, I finally cleared out my office in the Palais Wilson and started a PR job in Zurich.

However, that wasn’t the end of my connection with the IB. In 1982 I went on to lecture at the Handels- und Dolmetscherschule in St Gallen. For some time, I had been contributing items to the multiple choice papers in English, French and German B, which I could now trial with my students. Tom Carter asked me to continue with that, and I also took on the task of oral examiner in these languages at Geneva and Munich International Schools for the next few years. This kept me in touch with some of the friends I had made in the IBO, and allowed me to attend some language examiner meetings in Bath, where IBEX was installed by then. My official relationship with the IB finally ended in about 1986. It had been ten very interesting years in the development of the Organisation, which had become a totally different entity from the small, intimate, artisanal enterprise I first experienced in 1976.

2 thoughts on “Donkeys in Bathrooms: Part 5

  1. There is nothing like putting down experiences onto paper or a blog. Those ten years must have left a strong impression, enough to give us the joy of reading about it.
    Between 1973/76 I taught art to adults in The Netherlands and up till this day I still have contact with one of my adult students who has had a lot of joy in creating art ever since.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s