opinionBy Oscar Obonyo
Nairobi — Even as debate rages on over the recent nullification of national examination results for hundreds of secondary school candidates, it was not surprising that the matter assumed political dimensions.
Leaders from the most affected area, the three Kisii districts, led by Energy minister Simeon Nyachae called on Education minister George Saitoti to register their concerns.
Some were even suggesting that regions which had a high number of cheating cases were being victimised.
Examination cheating is a well-established practice that involves not just students, but also teachers, administrators and other people in the community.
Many teachers and former students concede that success depends on co-operation from everybody - meaning the candidates, invigilators, security personnel and the entire school population.
"My experience is that massive cheating involving a whole centre can hardly be executed effectively without the prior knowledge or assistance of the invigilation team and the school administration," says Mr Simon Githuku, a national examinations supervisor.
Indeed, cheating has proved to be a crucial necessity for some school communities; a most guarded secret that can turn fatal if any of the parties involved leaks out information.
In 1998, for instance, a Garissa High School teacher, Mr Tirus King'ori, was brutally killed in daylight by his own former students. He had exposed massive and well-co-ordinated examination cheating in the school and neighbouring schools.
According to a fellow teacher who witnessed the episode in Garissa town, the boys emerged from a bush and surrounded the youthful teacher and started slapping him.
As King'ori broke into a run, one of the boys hit him on the head with a metal bar and he fell. He was hit repeatedly and stabbed several times. One of the assailants left a knife sticking in King'ori's back as residents stood by and watched.
The sin the 27-year-old Egerton University graduate had committed was being opposed to examination cheating. His murder was the culmination of tension and riots in four secondary schools in Garissa after Form Four examination results were cancelled for alleged widespread cheating.
The teacher reportedly leaked information to the Ministry of Education. Examination results for four schools - Garissa High, North Eastern Province School, County High School and Umusalama School - were nullified. More than 400 students were affected.
Over time, exam cheating has become of utmost interest not only to the candidates but members of the local community.
A teacher had to seek a transfer from a well known girls' school in Kisii District following her persistent opposition to examination cheating.
"The hostility from some colleagues and the community around the school was too much. I realised that they misinterpreted my professional concerns as actions of jealousy from a foreigner out to frustrate efforts to help their children prosper," she says.
The school's results were cancelled barely six months after her transfer.
A few years ago, a mathematics teacher in a neighbouring school was confronted by enraged candidates who stormed out of the examination room baying for his blood.
The students, explains a Form Four candidate, had paid as much as Sh200 each to the teacher to help them revise what he had assured them was a genuine copy of the Mathematics Paper II.
After spending a night-long marathon revision exercise on the eve of the exam, the students nearly collapsed in the examination room on being presented with a completely different paper.
"As students, at that time, we felt we had coughed a lot of cash and grumbled helplessly throughout the exam session. Having learnt his mistake, the teacher fled the school before we left the examination room," recalls the former student.
Purchasing of leaked examination papers is an accepted practice in some areas and is the main strategy for cheating.
"In some places, parents are well aware of this arrangement and pay the required sum of up to Sh15,000 alongside the usual examination and other levies to the school authorities," says a second-year student at the University of Nairobi.
Once the amount has been paid, the students sit back and wait for the delivery of copies of examination papers. In some cases, deliveries are made a day before the examination, compelling candidates to forfeit their sleep by carrying out all-night revisions.
In an even more orchestrated operation involving virtually all members of the school, a candidate volunteers to smuggle out of the examination room his or her question paper by throwing it out of the window.
Somebody picks up the paper and takes it straight to the staff room.
All teachers in a given department then gather and quickly share out the questions. Answers and options are hurriedly crafted by the teachers before being copied.
Once the copying is complete, a few junior students are charged with the duty of smuggling them to the examination rooms by dropping them through the windows where they exchange hands liberally among the candidates.
However, successful execution of this method is not easy. A Nairobi teacher recalls a case of a particularly dumb student who went copying or "dubbing" as it is popularly known, wrong answers.
The candidate sitting he Christian Religious Education paper landed clues for the Social Education and Ethics paper and pasted the answers without differentiating the questions. Results for the two subjects for the entire school were cancelled.
According to Mr Githuku, a supervisor or invigilator has no authority to stop a student from doing an examination even if they detect cheating.
"The operational rule is that we immediately take away such material before making an appropriate report about the case," explains Mr Githuku, a teacher at Gachie High School in Kiambu.
Examiners mention similarities in mistakes or answers made by students and constant erasures on answer sheets as some of the detectable elements of examination cheating.
But many examiners could be abetting the crime by failing to report.
"My primary aim is mark and make enough money. Why would I take the trouble of pointing out the error as this is bound to hold my work back?" asks a teacher who has marked examinations for many years.
Examiners are paid per script marked and speed therefore is important. Any examiner who detects cheating is supposed to halt the marking exercise and report to the team leader who then begins investigations.