It started with an act of kindness.
A little girl, growing up the hard way, sat for an exam with potentially life-changing consequences.
Do well, and a whole new world of opportunity would open up. One that was rarely available to someone like her. A full scholarship to a prestigious private school. A realistic chance of one day going to university. Leading to a comfortable life. Where the everyday unexpected things were mere speed bumps in the road, rather than the major calamities they seemed to be today.
The girl had not won the ovarian lottery. Her mother was only 14 years older than she was. A drug addict who supported her habit by prostituting herself out of the tiny flat they shared on a rough council estate.
The little girl slept on the floor of a wardrobe, out of sight and away from the unwanted attentions of the gentleman callers whom her mother serviced at all hours of the day and night.
There was rarely any food in the house. School dinners often providing her only regular meal of the day. Unlike most kids, weekends and school holidays were viewed with dread and hunger.
Yet despite the shitty hand she had been dealt in life, the little girl was a ray of sunshine that brightened the day of all who encountered her. Always smiling and singing. Optimistic. Consciously grateful for the few good things in her life.
Teachers weren’t supposed to have favourites among their pupils. However, the girl was a firm favourite with the school staff.
Every day one of the teachers would run the gauntlet through the estate to collect the little girl from her flat. Escorting her safely to school. If they didn’t, she didn’t attend, having no way to get herself there. Food and school supplies would magically appear in her battered pink second-hand Disney princess backpack, the faculty doing what they could to make a tough life just a little bit easier.
The headteacher prowled around the examination hall. Keeping a watchful eye over his pupils as they sat the standardised test. A lot rode on the outcome. High school admissions. School funding levels. Staff promotion and retention decisions.
He paused behind the little girl’s desk and watched with pride as she read each question in the examination booklet, then carefully coloured in the little circle on the multiple-choice answer sheet.
Pride turned to horror, as he realised that she had answered on the wrong line. Mis-numbering her response. Question 87 answered on the line intended for question 85.
With just 5 minutes to go before the exam concluded, the headteacher furtively looked around. He squatted down beside the little girl’s desk, and quietly pointed backwards and forwards between the question number and the answer sheet.
The little girl gasped as she realised what she had done. She had been mis-numbering her answers from the mid-teens onwards, after skipping a couple of questions she hadn’t understood. Her eyes teared up as she looked desperately at the face of the kindly headteacher.
He handed her an eraser. Whispered that she still had time. Encouraged her to check her work.
Then he moved on, roaming the hall once more.
Nearby, an obnoxious boy picked his nose as he watched the interaction with bored disinterest. His answer sheet contained a drawing. Not the carefully shaded little circles of his peers, but of dinosaurs and robots surrounded by explosions in space.
The boy’s mother was convinced he was gifted and destined for great things. Forever complaining to the school that they were not challenging him enough to realise his full potential.
The teachers knew different.
The boy was easily distracted and lazy. A bully, who was not interested in his studies and rarely completed his homework. Convinced he would be a premier league football player when he grew up. Seeing little point in doing school work.
Which was unlikely. The only reason he had made the school team was his mother’s relentless lobbying.
Lies and misdirection
That night, the boy lied to his mother about how easy the exam had been, and how well he thought he had done. Telling her all the things she wanted to hear. Manipulating her. Eliciting praise and rewards for his diligence. Pizza for dinner, and a new computer game as a reward for all his hard work.
He mentioned in passing that the headteacher had assisted the little girl during the exam. His mother mentally filed that tidbit of information away, a potentially useful bit of future leverage.
Several weeks later, the standardised examination results were released.
The little girl had done well enough to secure the high school scholarship. Sometimes good things do happen to good people!
Meanwhile, the obnoxious boy had failed spectacularly. Returning the lowest examination score in the entire school, with not a single question answered correctly. He had even misspelt his name on the answer sheet!
He was rejected from the high school academic achievement programme that his mother had her heart set on him attending. His abysmal examination marks simply did not warrant a place.
His mother was furious.
There must be some mistake! Her darling son had told her how well he had done. How dare anyone attempt to get in his way? Try to hold back her gifted boy from his destiny of greatness.
After consulting her lawyer, she learned that school admissions were based upon a published process. Demonstrate that the authorities had not correctly followed their own process, and you can get the outcome you desire. A well-trodden path. Joining the ranks of litigious parents who challenge admission decisions based upon perceived bias, corruption, discrimination, or favouritism.
The mother launched a blitzkrieg attack. Scorched Earth. No prisoners taken. No quarter given.
Stories appeared in the press, questioning the conduct of the headteacher. Had he played fast and loose with the examination rules? Provided undue assistance to his students for personal gain?
How could there be a level playing field, if some students received more assistance than others?
Sensing an opportunity, opposition politicians demanded an inquiry. The government body responsible for administering fair examinations had clearly failed in its duty.
It was an embarrassment.
The headteacher was stood down, pending an investigation, and subsequently fired.
The school leadership team were disciplined for failing to correctly administer standardised examinations. Careers stalled and derailed. Hard-won reputations ruined.
The examination results for the students at the school were declared void. If the integrity of the examination process was in question, then any grades resulting from that process were suspect.
High schools were instructed to ignore the examination results when making admissions decisions for students from the school.
In an attempt to defuse the scandal, the boy was quietly awarded a place he didn’t deserve in the sought after academic achievement programme. Rewarded for all the wrong behaviours. He was destined to become an untouchable bully, after the high school leadership team witnessed the havoc wrought by his outspoken and well-connected mother.
The impact of the ambitious mother’s actions didn’t stop there. They rippled outwards. Affecting many lives in ways that weren’t immediately obvious. Having got what she wanted, she didn’t care.
In the fallout from the investigation, an emergency inspection of the school was conducted. The authorities wanted to be seen to be taking decisive action in the face of perceived impropriety. The school was stripped of its long-held “outstanding” rating, relegated to the dreaded “needs improvement” category.
Initiating a death spiral.
Successful schools are rewarded with funding. Failing schools are punished.
Those teachers capable of landing jobs at more highly rated schools leapt from the sinking ship, leaving behind the deadwood.
The candidate pool for their replacements was shallow. A failing school struggles to attract talent, and lacks the financial means to hire staff with a proven track record of turning things around.
As funding cuts took their toll, extracurricular activities were halted one by one.
Educational provision stripped back to the bare essentials, as the school focussed solely on improving standardised examination results. If it wasn’t assessable, it wasn’t taught.
Hundreds of pupils losing out. Never getting to experience a multitude of activities, which might otherwise have inspired a dream, or fostered an interest that may have one day evolved into a career in one of those disciplines.
Neighbourhood property prices took a tumble. The school had long acted as a magnet for attracting young families. Now it was as if the polarity had been reversed, repelling those same young families towards other neighbourhoods which promised a brighter future for their precious offspring.
When there are more sellers than buyers, prices tend to fall.
The viability of nearby property developments was called into question. The developers needed to sell a certain proportion “off the plan” to finance construction, but now potential buyers sat back in anticipation of further reductions. One development was mothballed until more favourable market conditions returned. Another proposed development was abandoned entirely.
Businesses that had been established in anticipation of those new developments being completed struggled. Bakeries. Bars. Coffee shops. Gyms. The sorts of places that thrive on the trade brought by young urban professionals living in densely populated apartment buildings. Not so much when surrounded instead by a tired collection of rundown single-family homes.
There are a number of potential lessons that could be taken from this cautionary tale.
That those willing to do whatever it takes, regardless of consequence, often get what they want.
While those who play dirty rarely get what they deserve.
That rules only have power over those who choose to be bound by them.
While perception can be as important as reality. Sometimes more so.
That power is taken, not given.
While no good deed goes unpunished.
All these things are often believed, and sometimes true.
Which raises an interesting question: how we feel about those who win, but win ugly?
Achieving the desired outcome via underhanded means.
Preying on fear and weakness.
Yet still winning.
The headteacher broke the rules, but from a place of good intentions.
The ambitious mother followed the rules of the game, but for the wrong reasons.
Who was right? Who was in the wrong? Questions best left for the reader to decide.
And what became of the little girl with the bright future?
She lost her dream of attending private school.
The examination results were a key element for receiving a scholarship process. Without them, she no longer qualified.
The glowing personal recommendation from a now-disgraced former headteacher carried far less weight than when it had been authored by the current headteacher of an outstanding school.