March 05, 2010

Another Flawed Policy by the Military Regime

In case citizens of Fiji were unaware, the Ministry of Education under the leadership of a Bainimarama crony, Filipe Bole, has decided to scrap national examinations for the Secondary Entrance (Class 8) and Fiji Junior (Form 4) examinations.

Prof Wadan Narsey made his views public on the weekend detailing just how badly thought out the idea of scrapping national exams is, and we reproduce his excellent point of view below.

More importantly the solutions the bureaucrats propose via this flawed policy does nothing to fix the problem in relation to the urban and rural divide, and inequitable accesss to quality education by our rural populace.

Prof Narsey's article highlights that the urban and rural divide is not new. It is just cleverly hidden from public scrutiny. It is quite incredible therefore that the MoE bureaucrats have not already thought about making rural postings both mandatory (at least for a number of years) as well as more attractive (eg special allowances) for all teaching professionals, to ensure that rural students DO NOT continue to remain left behind.

Furthermore it is perhaps appropriate that schools and teachers performance (and therefore rewards) are assessed by how well their students fare in national exams. Such a responsibility should inevitably lead to the cementing of enhanced relationships between schools and parents to ensure that whilst at home there are appropriate support structures in place that encourage learning.

In addition it also calls for a relook into the quality of teachers we continue to churn out year after year.  The teaching vocation is not just a job. It is a calling that only a few people have the appropriate qualities for -- as are vocations in the health sector.  And we would therefore suggest that the application process for aspiring teachers receives major rework by the unnecessarily hallowed and feared bureaucrats up at Marela House.

If Fiji, and in particular parents allow this flawed policy to go ahead, they and their children pay a heavier price at the end of the tunnel -- which will probably only be detected by the time they're being assessed with other students in tertiary institutions, as pointed out by Narsey.

By then it falls again on ALL taxpayers to pay for ways to bring these students up to par and that means we forgo other essential national priorities like healthcare, infrastructure (better roads, water supply) etc. So then the country pays a price for bad policy advice like this which ultimately results in a wider domino effect -- and we have just seen this happen with the bad idea to revise starting hours at school because of daylight savings.

As a former teacher, education policy maker AND  education Minister we expected far better from Filipe Bole. This is after all the future's of our next generation that is being experimented with here.

Bole is obviously way past his use-by date.
National examination
Professor Wadan Narsey
Saturday, February 27, 2010

THE education authorities are planning to phase out a whole series of national examinations and switching over to internal examinations by schools.

The stated objective is to ensure that children are not "failed" by these examinations and then pushed out of the education system.

Of course, it is a good objective to try and keep school age children in school, hopefully right up to Form 6.

But one does not need to phase out the national examinations in order to achieve that.

Just do not use national examinations to fail and filter students. Use them as valuable and irreplaceable diagnostic tools to assist schools, teachers, students, and their parents. Parents should note that there are very serious disadvantages, especially for rural school children, if national examinations are phased out.

The Ministry of Education is in serious danger of destroying the excellent capacity that has been built up over the last forty years, in the implementation of national examinations and the processing of the results.
If the national examinations are phased out, we will be throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Rural backwardness
For decades, the examinations statistics have shown (rarely publicized) that schoolchildren in rural schools have a much higher failure rate than children in urban schools.

Good teachers tend not to go to rural schools which are usually severely handicapped in terms of resources such as libraries and laboratories.

Rural school management and principals often have problems keeping teachers to tight discipline, with kava abuse increasing in recent years.

Moreover, rural children suffer from a whole host of disadvantages which urban children do not: walking long distances to and from school, lack of electricity at home, poor nutrition, use of school time for non-academic duties, to mention just a few.

"Failing" rural school children are then pushed out by the schools.

But they do not need to be pushed out.

Internal examinations not the answer
It is being proposed that the national examinations will increasingly be replaced by internal assessments.

No doubt this will not make much differences to all the good schools throughout Fiji which have good teachers and school management.

However that is not the case throughout Fiji, and especially in the rural areas.

Regardless of how much training is given them, if teachers are left to their own devices, the logical result will be a mish mash of internal examinations, some good, some average, and some absolutely bad. It will also be natural that schools and teachers, who are in personal contact with parents, will have great reluctance in devising tough objective examinations which may result in large proportions of children appearing not to do well.

The natural consequence will be that children will progress from year to year up the system, with no real objective assessment of how well they are doing.

Until they reach the stage where to enter tertiary institutions like USP, or FNU, they will have to sit some national examination.

At that stage, large proportions of our students will suddenly have to face the bitter truth: that they have not acquired the minimum required standards in numeracy, literacy, science and social science.

By then it will be too late, to take any remedial action.

Examinations processing capacity
The Ministry of Education can rightly be proud of the extremely efficient examinations processing capacity that has been built up over forty years at many levels, ranging from primary school (Year 6 and 8) to secondary school (Fiji Junior, FSLC and Form 7).

Examinations papers are set reasonably well, moderated, and implemented throughout the country.

Hundreds of thousands of examination papers are marked, and the results processed and analyzed by computer software, within a short span of time. Nearly always, the results are released well in time for them to be used by schools throughout Fiji.

Achieving all this is a massive exercise, but quite successfully done, year after year.

And the Ministry of Education has managed to build up the required skilled human resource capacity at their head quarters, despite salary levels which are not as attractive as those offered by regional CROP organisations for comparable skills.

All this human resource capacity is in danger of being needlessly dissipated if the national examinations are steadily phased out as is currently envisaged.

This would be an educational tragedy, difficult to reverse.

Better national examinations
We all agree that the national examinations should not be used to filter out the students. Instead, they can be significantly improved as diagnostic tests which advises students where they are strong and where they are weak and need improvement.

Currently, the results of national examinations are simply released as aggregate marks for each subject.

Students have no idea why they did well or poorly, and what their performance was like in all the different learning outcomes expected within each subject.

Surely, what ought to happen is that for each subject, there should be disaggregated results given so that schools, teachers, students and parents can be told: the student's performance was this and that in all the different aspects of the learning process and learning outcomes.

For instance in English, the students could be given a score card which tells them how well they did in comprehension, writing, grammar, spelling etc. so they could work on their weak areas in the future.

This is increasingly being done in many other countries, where students effectively can compare the examinations results year after year, to see whether they are making any progress in the various learning outcomes.

We should remember that our national examinations provide objective national standards by which all our students, teachers, and schools can assess their performance. There is no need to fail any student using these examinations. And there is no need to eliminate the national examinations. That would be throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Or as Joni Mitchell once sang in the sixties "you don't know what you have got till it is gone".

* Wadan Narsey is a professor based at the School of Economics at the University of the South Pacific. The views expressed are his own and not necessarily that of the organisation he is employed by nor the Fiji Times.

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