54 years after gaining Political Independence from the colonial powers, the Zambian education sector is moving from bad to worse. This situation unfortunately, is consistent with most arms of the public sector in Zambia. A good number of people genuinely concerned with Zambia’s social, health and economic landscape would agree with me that a lot of important sectors that should be part and parcel of the mechanism to Zambia’s development are malfunctioning and need a serious overhaul.
The recent degrading of all Zambian University qualifications to that of College level by the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge should give us a clear signal about the deteriorating education standards in the country. Thus, I want to comment on the happenings in the Zambian education sector. A sector of which I have been part of, both as a pupil /student and as a teacher, in both the primary and the secondary school sectors.
I do not know how, but maybe I might I have an idea about why we have reached these pathetic levels in the education sector in Zambia. This situation has affected the entire education machinery in the country starting from the lowest level which is primary schools, all the way to the highest level that is university. Needless to mention here that the Zambian education system is based on emphasising the passing of an examination rather than on pupils and students internalising the values of education so that in turn, those values could be used to improve the standards in the different sectors of our own society. The system is built on a rather inane and archaic tradition of brainwashing pupils and students to be very examination oriented. Where it is a foregone conclusion that only those that come out with the best results in the examinations are the only ones who will end up with having a good and productive life. Thus pupils and students are always making strategies of not focussing on the educational contents and value for developmental use, but for passing the examination that is before them, which in other words could be called a cramming system of education.
Teachers too, on the other hand are equally to blame because mostly, they teach with an objective of making their pupils and students pass examinations rather than internalising the contents. The so called extra lessons outside formal school hours have made things even worse, as pupils and students are being oriented to focus on how to pass an examination rather than inculcating those educational values that build conscience in the general citizenry.
The dominant value in the Zambian educational sector has highly shifted from that which should produce graduates with a conscience, requisite knowledge, skills and positive attitudes, to that which has so much more focus on getting over the examination hurdle, and having a good life thereafter, thus forsaking the inculcation of societal values. The focus of most graduates in our society is to get good results in an examination and find a job, in a prestigious organisation like the Bank of Zambia, the Zambia Revenue Authority or in some influential government ministry, without any motive or motivation for contributing to the uplifting of the standards of these institutions but to amass personal wealth and live a good life. Because of this kind of thinking, all pupils and students will stop at nothing but passing an examination at all costs, thus the dependency on examination leakages and favours from teachers and lectures has become a new normal. What is missing from the education system today, is a shared vocabulary (principles that guide behaviour), based on shared positive human values, which can provide a sense of direction and vision about how to create a stable moral society free of corruption, free of examination leakages.
To manage this, I suggest what Mr Simata Simata would call an effective “Crazy Idea”. Zambia, through the Ministry of Education should consider scrapping the grade 7 and grade 9 compulsory examinations as they just put unnecessary pressure on pupils, teachers and the Examination Council in preparing and implementing them. These two categories of examinations in Zambia have completely lost meaning and have just remained but a nursery to learn how to organise an examination leakage at a tender age.
Zambia as a country, has no capacity to give any alternatives to those that fail to make it to grade 8 and 10 respectively, so why having the examinations? After all, every citizen needs basic education before being thrown into society. These 2 categories of examinations were originally designed to sieve pupils so as to be in conformity with the few available spaces in the few secondary schools that were available at the time. But with the current scenario in Zambia today, the Ministry of education should allow everyone to proceed to grade 12 without sitting for a “must pass” compulsory examination. That will make everyone go further in school even if one does not manage to reach the famous (or infamous) cut off point. Therefore, the first examination that should render one not to go further with basic education should be at grade 12 level, and 12 years of formal schooling should officially be declared as Zambia’s Basic Education for every citizen. Those who reach a certain cut off point during the Ordinary(O) Level examinations or the local Zambian General Certificate of Education (GCE) in Grade 12 should then proceed to Grade 13 (or form 6) to do Advanced (A) Levels before getting into colleges and universities.
This way, Zambia will again start getting quality students in colleges and universities locally and abroad who apart from being academically sound, will highly appreciate value and self-reflection, which are the building blocks for every great nation. We do not need to wait for donors to come and dictate what is best for Zambia when we can do it ourselves. There are very few countries in the world, if any, that are sending their 12 and 14 year old citizens into society, because there are no school places for them and that they failed to pass their compulsory examinations. In the current Zambian scenario, these examinations does nothing constructive, apart from creating opportunities and excuses for young children to stop school. Moreover, no employer will demand for a grade 7 or grade 9 certificate in todays Zambia, but a grade 12 and higher.
If the Ministry of Education scraps the Grade 7 and 9 examinations and they stop making them mandatory for one to proceed to grade 8 and 10, then these examinations can be organised at provincial or district levels since they will just remain a part of monitoring the progress of pupils. If this becomes a reality, then it will give the Examinations Council of Zambia ample time to focus on O level and A level examinations only, giving them efficiency and credibility, as the grade 7 and 9 examinations are decentralised.
This move will equally save resources that could be used to build more schools because the preparation, implementation and marking of these examinations gobbles a colossal amount of money every year. We need to start thinking outside the box and make use of the available school space in our government schools. For example, having different sessions like it is in some primary schools, where some teachers and pupils could even be taking evening classes, that is starting work\school from as late as 15:00 to 19:00 is one option. It is just a question of coming up with a workable plan by utilising what we already have in our hands.
However, for these government schools to improve in standards, influential people in society like political leaders should consider taking their children to these schools. Like it was in the era of UNIP where even the President’s children went to government schools. The current situation is so bad that even the teachers themselves that are teaching in the government schools avoid taking their children there because the standards are pathetic. But, how can the standards improve when all the decision and policy makers have no children in these schools? They absolutely have no interest there. Thus, there should be a deliberate policy decision, that will make all top officials in the government and quasi government wings take their children to government schools. All political office bearers should equally take their children and dependants to government schools, colleges and universities.
One of the reasons the authorities have failed to control the mushrooming of uncontrolled schools, colleges and universities is because some top government officials and political office bearers have direct or indirect interest in some of these counterfeit institutions. There is no effective system whatsoever to monitor and control these new “learning” spaces. I know that there are institutions that have been tasked with the responsibility of standardising these spaces, but unfortunately some of the individuals in these institutions have been compromised, by either being offered executive board positions that naturally come with allowances, or have accepted to be on the payroll of the institution they are supposed to control. Again, there must be a deliberate policy decision on the part of the government to deter any top government official or political office bearer from being a stakeholder in any private learning institution. This move will make learning institutions to be minimal but more efficient, credible and value based. Such institutions will in turn act as platforms on which pupil/students and members of staff alike develop and deepen their understanding of issues concerned with ethics, morality and genuine development, which Zambia earnestly needs.
By Kabanda Mwansa
The author is a Zambian social commentator and PhD research fellow at the Center for Child and Youth Competence Development at Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences.