Monday, 23 June 2014

The Dreaded Baccalaureate Exam

My youngest daughter sat her Baccalaureate exam here in Algeria a couple of weeks ago finishing three years of hard graft, sacrifice, bullying teachers and friends on the edge of hysteria.  Most Algerians are extremely ambitious for their children, boys and girls, to do well in school and pass their Baccalaureate exam whether they want to go on to University or not.  They will pay for extra tuition for their children in the most important subjects, watch their progress at each end of term exam closely and remove privileges such as internet access, play-station time, extra sport activities if they don’t do well enough……a bare pass won’t do……they have to pass WELL and come high in the class.  Whenever Algerians meet up socially, their children’s progress in school is always discussed and after each end of term exam grandparents, aunts and uncles are all informed as to how well or badly they performed.

In schools some teachers will spend part of their lesson time telling their students how important this exam is, as if they don’t know already, and how they have no hope of passing if they don’t spend every waking minute studying for it.  There are those teachers who know that if they teach their students well and give them the time to revise in class and ask questions, they have given them the best preparation for the exams, and these teachers stand out a mile from all the rest.

Of course it doesn’t help that there was a Presidential election here in April, after which there was a new Minister for Education appointed and decisions regarding the education system were made, such as the cut-off point at which lessons stopped.  This was important this year as there had been several teacher strikes where the students had no teachers at all and missed a lot of school time with very little hope of catching up, despite the best efforts of some teachers to make up for lost time by giving lessons at the weekend.  Almost all teachers agreed that there was little hope of completing the course in a lot of subjects and so it was anticipated that the cut-off point of lessons would reflect this and the students could concentrate on revising what they had already learnt.  The decision on the cut-off was made three weeks before the Baccalaureate exam started and, to the dismay of students and teachers alike was much later in the course than expected, resulting in students having to learn new information in addition to revising, and totally upsetting revision plans, without any thought given to what this did to the already fragile state of the students psyche.
Then there are the television and radio programmes devoted to discussions on the subject with all and sundry giving their two cent’s worth….or in this case two dinars worth.

So it is little wonder that, despite the best efforts of a school psychiatrist’s general lectures and a badly stretched school counsellor, so many of the students are on the point of hysteria as it comes up to the exams.  One of my daughter’s friends said that her father had told her ‘what’s the worst that can happen – so you fail, so what, you can always repeat, it’s not the end of the world’, in an effort to calm her fears, but the pressure comes from so many sources that it’s difficult to listen to just one lone voice even if it is that of your parents.  It doesn’t help that, in this country, there are very little future prospects without this exam, and so it does feel like the end of the world if you don’t pass.

My husband and I tried our best to counteract all this negativity by trying our very level best to put this exam into its proper perspective, by telling our daughter that this exam is just one of many different ones in life, that all she has to do is her best and then put her trust in Allah.  In other words to use this exam as an example of how to deal with all tests and exams in life, to learn how to tackle them head on as each one arrives.

It was easy to be like this with our daughter as she had worked hard for all the previous three years and was very self-motivated.  When it was our eldest son who was sitting this very same exam three years previously it was a very different story.  All through his school years, despite being very bright and capable he barely scraped his way through every set of exams, mainly due to the fact that he just hated the system of education here so much and rebelled against it as much as he could.  Having said that, he never got into any trouble and rarely were we ever called to the school, unless it was because he had gone home before a tardy teacher had finally turned up and marked him absent.  He has always loved reading and has an interest in scientific and mathematical fields.  When it came to his Baccalaureate year he stopped attending school in January (his exam being in early June).  It is not uncommon for students to stop school lessons in April, but my daughter stayed until the bitter end – a couple of weeks before the exam date.  My son did have access to any hand-outs from the school and also sat the mock exam at which he proudly scored a miserable 4 out of 20, but instead of attending school he spent most days sleeping and doing very little and nights revising with his friends.  My husband and my attitude was ‘it’s your life, you know you can’t do much in this country without this exam, you need to do this for yourself, not for us’ (although of course secretly we would have been very happy if had wanted to do it for us, if for nothing else!).  We may have seemed blasé about the whole thing, but inwardly we were gnawing on our fingernails!

I was due to travel home to Ireland in June and I deliberately left it until after his exam, a decision which he told me was not what he wanted – he didn’t want me around during his exams, and when prompted he told me that it was because he didn’t want a post-mortem on each exam, to be asked how it went.  I understood this perfectly and told him that I wouldn’t and I kept to my promise, but was so happy to be there to take care of him during this stressful time, and I know he was happy too Alhamdulilah.  We were in England when his results came through and I first heard them from his cousin who lives there, so he was a bit disappointed when he finally got through to me to know that I had found out already.  I was so proud, happy, and relieved that he had passed and with a good mark.  When one of his aunts heard about his exam score from his mock exam she had shook her head knowingly and said ‘he’s never going to pass’, and when he rang her to tell her his results she burst into tears she was so happy!

Two very different children and two very different attitudes to studying (although both hate the system of education here) and two totally different ways of dealing with the Dreaded Baccalaureate Exam, and I’m so proud of both.  Even if my daughter doesn’t pass her exam (I feel this is unlikely but you never know how or with what Allah will test you), I know she worked really hard and so I’m already as happy and proud of her, Allahibarek, as if she has passed the exam, and I’m so proud of my son, Allahibarek, for bucking the system and still winning.  I’m happy because, despite all of society’s pressure to conform my two have been able to ‘think outside the box’, to think for themselves and to question the social norms. 

Our role as parents is to instil in them a firm faith in Allah, first and foremost, to know that He is always there to turn to when their backs are up against the wall when nobody else, including us, is there for them.  But there is also another role we have as parents and that is to teach our children how to live without us, because one day we won’t be there watching over their shoulders, advising them what to do.  For me, the Baccalaureate Exam is merely one lesson in this very important course of education.


  1. Salam alaykum, Is there any way I can contact you privately, like via email? I can really relate to you in so many things and I have some questions to ask you if you wouldn't mind, as you have been here longer than me. I'm really interested to hear what you have to say about raising kids here, I have a toddler and sometimes I stress because I don't know what to expect!

    1. Walaykum asalaam wa rahmatulah,

      I'd be happy to help in any way I can or put you in contact with someone who can - there is a huge community of foreigners living here now who have formed quite a few support networks Alhamdulilah. You can email me at