27 March 2012

Tanzania: Lesson From Ward Secondary Schools


EVERY year when the National Examinations Council of Tanzania (NECTA) announces examination results for both O and A Levels, some of the public reacts by rushing to the internet to get a glimpse of the best and worst performing schools.

That also is the time when parents carefully scour for suitable schools for their children and when students are transferred from so-called non-performing schools to schools with good grades.

Unfortunately, for ward secondary schools, the release of the results comes as a time of anxiety for students whose performance in the 'O' Level exams is rather limited.

For two consecutive years, (2010 and 2011) ward schools have faired so poorly that their dismal performance have triggered debates while research has been conducted on viable steps and options to change the appalling situation.

So far, only criticism has been levelled against the government for setting up these schools, without providing them enough teachers and equipment. The government has responded by saying its meagre funds to employ teachers are already overstretched, although there are concerted efforts to increase their numbers and purchase text books.

Parents, with whom the government shares responsibility in running the schools, complain that they are too poor to put in an extra buck for the schools. However, as good citizens, ward school challenges are a burden for everyone as they are an alternative for thousands of boys and girls who would otherwise be loitering after missing a chance to proceed to secondary school.

Whether the challenges facing the schools could have been avoided is one thing. On the other hand, grading them as secondary schools and expecting them to perform as well as established schools that admit students strictly on merit and provide adequate teaching and learning facilities put them at a disadvantage.

Nothing more could have persuaded me to take that side than a visit to a couple of ward schools in Muheza District last month, courtesy of the Tanzania Media Women Association (TAMWA). Save for mobile phones, these locations are deprived of the many benefits of the information and technology era, including access to TV, radio and newspapers. Nobody talks about current affairs and the world seems to begin and end in the ward where a school stands.

I was lucky enough to chat with students, asking them a couple of general questions both in Kiswahili and English. However, only one student, out of 70 knew that Maputo is a capital of Mozambique and none was able to explain in English what they do after school on a daily basis. Seeing is believing!

Engaged in a conversation with the academic master at Kicheba Secondary School, I stumbled upon a young man who was scouting for a teaching job. He had graduated from Muheza High School in 2010, where he earned himself Division 1V, close to failing. If he passed the interview, he would teach Chemistry and Physics at the school.

At Pande Darajani Secondary School, a retired civil servant, Mzee Samwel Sango (not his real name), aged about 70, was teaching Biology, courtesy of his experience at Mlingano Agricultural Research Institute. Mzee Sango was honest, he has no formal training in teaching methodologies and only banks on his knowledge of the subjects from his 'O' Level studies.

He raised a pertinent issue that has been ignored in many studies and surveys. The English language is a stumbling block to students and even teachers. Mr Rajabu Mziray of Ngomeni Secondary School shares the same view on English being the medium of instruction but not taken up by students and teachers accordingly.

"I often walk around the school compound while lessons are in progress. My serious concern is that teachers use Kiswahili in place of English, which is not helpful to students because exams are set in English, said Mr Mziray. Given the situation for ward schools, it is a little absurd to expect these schools to excel like other schools that are taught by well trained teachers, have boarding facilities and adequate equipment.

One doesn't expect Marian Girls, in Bagamoyo or St Francis in Mbeya to perform like Ngomeni or Pande Darajani schools in Tanga.

In the 2011 examination results for example of Marian Girls, 73 girls got Division-I, 30 girls passed with Division II and 10 with division III, while only one had Division 1V. None failed.

However, the opposite was the case with most, if not all ward schools. One of them, Pande Darajani had no Divisions I, II or III while two boys managed to get the near Division 1V. Otherwise 72 students sadly failed. There is a yawning gap between the schools and education experts must help to solve some intriguing questions. Should they continue to be administered as secondary schools with an eroded credibility or is there an alternative? Beside the teachers who are assured of their monthly salaries, who else benefits from these schools?

Is anyone interested in hiring these youth who have subsequently dropped out of school? Where do these thousands of boys and girls go? Once those pertinent questions are answered, we might agree that by introducing a different mode of learning, even if it means cutting the schools off from the 'O' Level curriculum, a new dawn for a prosperous future would be ushered in.

A ward school can be a centre of excellence, post primary or polytechnic for agro-mechanics, agriculture and animal husbandry, carpentry, tailoring, business entrepreneurship, food and nutrition, masonry, ICT, etc. Certainly, students will like the set up as exams will be based on what is actually taught.

In the end, everyone who finishes from these schools goes home with a certificate that could help them get employed or they could settle for self employment. To start with, model schools may be set up with the aid of District Councils where all development money is poured into by the central government. Then parents will be asked to participate as such projects are supposed to be of benefit to their children.

All this comes as a second thought for ward schools which are absorbing thousands of youths but with very little or no viable end results. Tanzanians are talented. The youth will be meaningful to the nation only when we accept constructive criticisms and adapt to changes.

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