10 February 2013

Zimbabwe: 0'level Results - Don't Blame the Children

Photo: Unicef/IRIN
School kids sharing text books in Zimbabwe.

In spite of high-sounding noises to the contrary, governments don't want children to pass examinations! This is a disturbing fact that all parents don't know and have never been told. Governments use school-leaving examinations to manipulate the minds of the parents and children in a way that diverts their minds from the governments' own failures

For parents in Zimbabwe, examinations -- especially O'level -- are the most important landmark in their children's education. They have invested lots of resources in the 11 years of their child's education and expect a good reward. They expect that their child passes the exams. They hope if their child passes it improves not only their child's lot but that of the family as well.

Imagine then the disappointment when this doesn't happen? Poorer parents, who are in the majority, are dismayed that their child's chance of getting a job are scuppered and therefore the family remains in the same position of poverty they wished to escape. Those parents who wished to see their children progress with their education are disappointed that they won't be able to do so. The failure of the child becomes the failure of the family. They blame themselves and their children for the failure, when the blame should lie elsewhere.

It was saddening to read and hear what parents had to say about their children's performances. Most blamed their children for the failure. A typical accusation was: "The calibre of the students that are there these days are not using their school time productively. They will be busy on their phones, be it WhatsApp, or Facebook." (Zimsec O'Level results disappoint parents, NewsDay February 6, 2013).

But how many of us who were educated in the pre-internet age ask ourselves what high grades we could have achieved if we had access to as much information as our children have? Have teachers and schools taught their pupils to harness all the information they can get on the internet and use it positively? But cartoons were drawn and funny result slips created to illustrate the evil of the internet.

But the truth of the matter is; this is exactly what the government wished to happen. They wanted the children to fail and place all the blame on themselves and their parents and of course the internet. Many readers still on haven't seen the logic of this argument.

Roughly 300 000 children sat for the O'Level examinations last year; the same figure perhaps for each of the past 15 years. For argument's sake, if all of them passed, what would be the result? The result would be a political crisis of unprecedented proportions; more than a quarter of a million people thrown onto the job market every year when the country's unemployment figure rate sits at more than 80%. The truth is the government is not creating even a tenth of the jobs it should create a year; therefore it has no clue as to what to do with the school-leavers pouring onto the job market. To safeguard itself, it has to ensure that most children fail and blame themselves for not getting jobs instead of pointing a figure at the government. This strategy is not unique to Zimbabwe, the British and the Americans have used it and continue to do so especially at university level.

When the unemployed youths demand jobs from government, all government has to say is: "We gave you your chance and you failed!" When the same youths clamour for tertiary education places, they are told the same. Crestfallen, tails between their legs, the unemployed youths, who cannot further their education, blame themselves for the mess they are in, instead of blaming the true culprit.

Governments set examinations and mark them. They determine the passing marks and the failing marks. Often they use what is called bell-curve grading, a method of assigning grades designed to yield a desired distribution of grades among the students writing exams. Theoretically, if one was to pick randomly a sample of say 100 people and gave them an examination their performances would fall in what is called "normal distribution" in which most would be average, a small number exceptionally good, another small number exceptionally weak. When the results are plotted in a graph it describes a bell.

The government, when it sets exams may have a bell-curve graph such as the one at the bottom, which predetermines that 2% of all the candidates who sit an exam should obtain an A grade, 14% B, 68% C, another 14% D while the last 2% get U. It can manipulate the figures depending on what percentage of the candidates it can absorb into higher education or into employment. In Zimbabwe at the moment precious few can ever hope to get jobs after O'level, let alone when they have failed. Again, very few will get Advanced Level places; forget about university places. It is called the bottleneck system of education inherited from the colonial system.

Universities work in a similar manner. What government needs hundreds of thousands of unemployed graduates on the streets? Educated people on the street constitute a security threat, but if they have been "given their chance and failed", they are easier to manage.

Our education system is wrong because it is based on the assumption that the job market can absorb all school-leavers, when we know it cannot. Instead we should design a system that gives the children skills they can use to survive. In spite of everything, the Vapositori have the best education system, every one of their children is taught a skill such as metal work; there are no failures. A typical mupositori child can make something and market it by the time he/she becomes an adult -- that's a win-win scenario.

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