After the General Science paper, Sam stood in front of his three rascally friends and proudly narrated his escapades in the exams hall. I could not help but listen with bewilderment how this eleven year old successfully managed to collate answers in the examination room, copy a friend's drawing and even have time to swap papers without arousing the slightest suspicion. They clapped and cheered him on 'Sam oo, Sam!' Sam nodded in approval. He has just earned one more star in his social and educational ratings!
Such practices are not uncommon. The pressure to pass at all cost has driven an educational system that was supposed to teach and help children get necessary skills and knowledge for life away from its objective. The system now only manages to get the kids across an imaginary finish line of success. Such is the system that produced little Sam and many others. Wait a minute! I am a product of that educational factory too! This is how I see it.
There is so much competition in the educational system nowadays thanks to our very own private or preparatory schools. In business, competition brings out (or it is supposed to bring out) the best in firms – even though some may resort to illegal and unfair practices. The competition in our educational system had the potential of bringing out the best in the students. How? Well, by attaining academic excellence a school will become an educational hotspot. Students will flock in and fill the classrooms and the proprietor's pocket too. Other schools will step up their efforts to outdo the dominant one and steal the limelight in academic superiority. They will hire well trained teachers, furnish the classrooms and libraries with the best learning materials on the market, provide centres for recreation and relaxation and make available career moulding avenues for the students. What a brilliant concept! This bright future was however dimmed, partly by the uncontrolled establishment of private schools. In every nook and cranny, there exists a school owned and run by people who should themselves be in a school to be taught the essentials of education. These accredited schools have been allowed to run with very little or no regulation from the authorities. Some of the structures they run the schools in are at best death-traps. The classrooms are poorly ventilated cells, filled to the brim with kids, making them effective vectors for contagious diseases. Some have badly maintained restrooms too. These restrooms can make you put on hold urgent calls of nature till you get home; that is if you are tough enough. Some on the other hand are educational resorts. Yes! Plush classrooms and libraries, cafeterias and air-conditioned school buses treat the students to a pure luxury ride in learning. I think you get the picture. Good! However, structures are the least of my worries. My concern has to do with their approach to education.
These people run the schools like battery cage poultry farms. The proprietors need to fill their classrooms and of course, their bank accounts. How can they achieve this? Like I said earlier, one way is to sell the school as the best in the area. How does the proprietor register the school in the minds of the parents? The proprietor has to prove that every child that enters the school will leave with flying colours in his/her final examinations. Now these flying colours can be achieved by hiring well-trained teachers (who are quite pricy) to take the kids through the approved syllabus and equip them with the necessary skills and knowledge for their final exams and after-school life. There is however, a more 'accepted' method. Most proprietors hire ill-educated people to handle the various courses or subjects (since they are cheaper to employ); overload the academic calendar with a lot of unnecessary activities to confuse the parents and when their final exams are due, inject the students with 'academic steroids' for maximum performance. Please allow me to go on further.
The students are taught how to defeat the exams system and not how to gain useful knowledge that will equip them for life after school. The entire focus of some schools seems to have shifted to simply getting their students a pass mark by hook or crook (from the little I have seen, it is predominantly crook). This brings us to the birth and rise of past examination questions. It has been an age-old practice to test oneself before the main exams to check one's readiness. The idea was good and it still is. The only problem with its application today is that, attention has shifted from the subjects to their past questions instead. Students are encouraged to buy past examination questions or 'pascos' as they are affectionately called, and create soft copies of the books in their heads. After all, the examination will be a mere repeat of previously asked ones. So junior high school students dedicate their lamentable lots to the study of B.E.C.E. past questions. Senior high school students do likewise and the practice is sadly carried on to the tertiary level. Is it any wonder then that 'pascos' are one of the best-selling school materials?
After the 'pasco' indoctrination, the students are taught the divine art of foretelling or on a milder note, forecasting. Some teachers monitor the trends in the examination history of some subjects. With much calculation and analysis, they can almost accurately tell the exact topics students will be examined on. It does not sound bad at all, does it? Honestly, it is a brilliant idea, but for one loophole. It turns students into compulsive academic gamblers. Why not? In 2006, this question was asked, in 2008 it was rephrased and asked, and therefore in 2010 this question should appear! Why should I bother to study anything else when I know what will be on my exams papers? So if it is light, electricity and forces that I am expecting in the coming Science exams, why should I even attempt to open the chapter on photosynthesis? You will be surprised how early these students are taught such 'specialisation'. From the first day at school, some are told some topics never show up at the final exams, so nobody should bother reading them; no teacher will of course bother to teach you either. How daunting when these uninvited guests turn up at the party! Later in our academic lives, we meet these former outcasts and they torment us for not getting to know them earlier when we were supposed to.
What about the numerous allegations that some schools buy papers for their candidates? Oh so you have not heard anything, have you? Well, before and after any exams, we hear these rumours all over the place – at least I do. Are they true? I cannot tell. Are they false? I strongly doubt! The average Ghanaian student living in the capital town of any region has an over 70% chance of coming in contact with these 'academic steroids'. They are however presented in such clever subterfuge that even the police might assist in delivery. How harmful is a likely examination question among a host of other likely exams? Note that I said 'likely'. These 'performance enhancing drugs' are called likely examination questions and logically so. They are not guaranteed to appear on the exams day, but when they do, some will rejoice while others gnash their teeth for stubbornly pronouncing the “it-will-not-come curse”. Some students pursue these questions as if their lives depended on them. Yes, even during internal examinations, questions leak and students benefit hugely from such administrative lapses. Such practices are born out of the oversimplified definition of success – getting a high grade in a test that basically does not assess how well you know, think and put into practice what you have studied. This means that students can be helped to get high grades and averages in the examinations but later in life when asked to justify their brilliant results, will be found academically bankrupt.
After all said and done, the students will have to write the exams one way or the other. In the exams hall or room, another way around the system is found. It used to be cheating, at least when we thought morals counted for something. I honestly do not know what it is called today, but I guess it has a dignified name to go by. Some invigilators, the lenient ones, allow students to 'help' one another during the examinations. These lenient and saintly souls permit helping of all sorts: borrowing and lending mathematical sets and accessories, making long distance calls for answers, swapping exams papers for verification and confirmation of answers and allowing students to work before and after the official exams time. You see, these practices used to be bad and in our books they still are. However, in some exams halls, they have been sanctified. Therefore, if a student refuses to partake of these malpractices, he becomes the black sheep among the lot and he dares not perform below the average mark. His faithfulness to the rules will end in ridicule for the enforcers of the rule themselves will call him stupid for not cheating when he had the chance to do so. So the students are left with very little or no option than to do what everyone does in Rome. What about the invigilators? Rumour has it that some invigilators are handsomely rewarded for dealing leniently with the students they oversee. So at the end of the day, everyone is satisfied. The student gets the grade, the teacher gets the praise, the school gets the fame, the invigilator gets an “envelope”, the parents get the pride and the grounds for boasting, the neighbours get something to envy and the country gets one more person betrayed by the system.
Meanwhile, somewhere in an overcrowded compound house, Sam's big brother is being subjected to public ridicule: his aggregate was 14 while the next door neighbour's son had 8. The mother rains insults on this poor befuddled boy. He had Grade 1 in Pre-Technical Skills and that did not even count for anything! As they made fun of him, he wondered why on earth he did not crane, why he did not look, and of course, why he did not copy!