Churches and hotels, along with a guesthouse and housing complex, were targeted in Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa. 259 people lost their lives, with around 500 being injured, in what was a painful reminder of the country’s war-torn past.
As with many in the country, the British Council was deeply and personally affected. With many staff member living in both Colombo and Negombo, there were personal ties to the victims of this tragedy. Painfully for us, one of our own staff, Keith Benjamin, died in the attacks.
Despite having to deal with the tragedy and the loss of our colleague and friend, the British Council was about to enter one of its busiest exam periods for the year. We were committed to delivering around 60,000 question papers on behalf of Cambridge and Pearson in May and June. This in addition to a further 4,000 IELTS tests, 2,000 Cambridge English tests and 8,000 exams for various professional boards and universities.
This was a daunting task and required that required local, regional and global staff to work together. At the top of our minds was ensuring a safe and secure environment in which students could sit the important, life-changing tests. Our management team was in daily contact with our Regional Director, our South Asia Security Advisor and the British High Commission, amongst others. Additionally, we brought in a regional security expert to advise us in venue security.
Despite our best efforts in planning, we faced numerous challenges. Our telephone lines and inboxes faced a massive influx in worried enquiries from parents and candidates, numbers we struggled to respond to in time. We faced demands from schools and parents to provide armed guards, which proved to be in limited supply. We had to deal with curfews that conflicted with session times, resulting in us obtaining curfew passes from local officials and often leaving some staff stranded in Colombo after curfew.
In what proved to be a highly stressful situation, we observed what appeared to be a highly credible security threat to one of our common venues, which was hosting candidates from more than one school. This led us to take the decision to change venue at 8.00pm the night before the session. With there being very little time to reach out to candidates directly, this meant transferring over 50 students the following morning by bus from the original venue to the new location.
Despite all these challenges, and the fact that each of us was personally finding ways to deal with the situation, we managed to successfully deliver exams on behalf of all our partner boards. I will be the first to admit that mistakes were made, mistakes in test delivery that we would not normally make. However, overall, I truly believe it to be successful.
What we managed to do was a team effort. It wasn’t just limited to British Council staff. It was the joint efforts of our staff, our hundreds of invigilators, our partner schools, our venues and of course the support of the school boards that we were able to deliver such high volumes in the face of such adversity.
By Rob Low, Country Exams Director Sri Lanka