Thursday, May 6, 2021

Botswana’s Education System has become a tragedy

Madam Speaker, I rise under colour or Order 9.3.2 of the Standing Orders of this House to make a statement on a matter of grave national importance.

In February 2015 the 2014 Botswana General Certificate of Secondary Education Examination results were released by the Botswana Examinations Council, (BEC). There were 37, 384 candidates who sat for the examination. Of this cohort, candidates in full time attendance in Government schools numbered 25, 186 while 2, 936 were in full time attendance at privately owned schools. The remaining 9, 266 were private candidates, (i.e. independent learners and students from BOCODOL as well as back-to-school candidates.) Overall, these figures represented a 3, 315 or 9.73% increase in the number of candidates compared to the previous year. It is important to note that each year the number of students sitting for the BGCSE increases.

The overall performance is heart wrenching. Of the total students who sat the 2014 examination, only 5, 796 obtained Grade C or better. This is only 25.75%. The rest of the candidates obtained Grade D or below. We should point out that these disappointing 2014 results are not an isolated or exceptional development. Rather, the BGCSE results have been declining since 2006. For instance, in 2013, the decline in performance for Government schools at Grade C or better was 2.02%.

In terms of school performance the story emerging for government owned schools is alarming. Schools in major cities and towns perform better than those in rural and remote areas. For example, St. Joseph’s College tops the list at a 38% pass rate for 2014. The same school was on top again in 2013 at a somewhat similar pass rate.
Shakawe Senior Secondary School, in the far North West District, once again sits at the bottom of the ladder with a pass rate of just 7% as was the case last year. Its pass rate has not improved in any significant way at all.

Pass rates below 50% are unacceptable in a country in which more than two-thirds of the annual budget goes to education. With the public investing so much in education, surely better returns on this investment are expected. What is most disturbing is that no serious measures have been taken to address the problem despite the avowed status of education as the engine of socio economic development.

The declining performance of the education system has far reaching implications for the country. Beyond the obvious fact that the poor performance means that that the country may not be able to produce the human resources robust enough to drive economic development, there are national security implications for the position of education as the greatest equalizer.

This emerging narrative bespeaks tragedy. Consistently underperforming are rural schools in particular regions of the country. Botswana is already a country characterized by gross income inequalities between rural and urban areas. Education is the most potent vehicle for upward social mobility in this country. The poor and indeed the whole country, have pinned their hopes for a better life on their children performing well at school and ultimately landing jobs or other opportunities with a sustainable income. These hopes are being dashed by the poor performance of Government schools generally and the rural based schools in particular. The 2014 BGCSE results are a crushing blow to the hopes and aspirations of a whole generation of young people. This unfolding narrative, scripted no doubt by the present education system and this Government, means that the poor are being denied the opportunity to participate in, and benefit from, meaningfully rewarding economic activities. The result is an ever widening gap between the better off urban and the desperately poor rural populations.

Another staggering observation is that consistently, it is the schools in the western and north-western parts of the country (e.g. Shakawe, Gantsi, Kang) that underperform. Drawing on the logic of education as a means of unlocking people’s potentialities, it stands to reason that residents of these regions are marginalized economically relative to their counterparts in the eastern parts of the country where overall school performance is far much better. This has the potential to destabilize the country. It is therefore urgent to ensure that this emerging trend does not wreak havoc in our country. When properly run and fairly distributed, education is a potent nation building tool. The performance of our schools, judged by the BGCSE results over the years, seems to negate this potential of education.

Private schools have now become the default destinations for children of the poor, further sinking them into the muck and mire of grinding poverty. This is not out of choice but out of desperation. That 9, 266 candidates were privately registered in the 2014 BGCS examination is testimony to the phenomenal failure of the public education system. The system is in a state of near paralysis and something drastic needs to be done. A change in strategy is needed. It is clear that grand systemic interventions are failing. It is about time we focused on local, school based reforms that will target areas of weakness in the schools for attention and intervention.

We need to understand that the educational crisis is not simply a matter of the education budget or budgetary constraints of running a well-functioning education system. The cyclical crisis in our education means we need to confront challenges in our system aggressively and systematically. We need to address, urgently, a number of key issues:

1.  Less than satisfactory management at the school level
2.  Poor working environment for teachers
3.  Poor preparation of students for secondary schooling
4.  Intellectually unhealthy learning environment for learners and their teachers
5.  A disconnect between the desired outcomes and the practice on the ground, marked by lack of a compelling or animating vision at all levels to push the desired outcomes.

Less than satisfactory management at the school level

Schools are not empowered to make their own decisions and budgets of some of their basic needs. It takes years to fix broke windows or doors or undertake any other type of maintenance work. Laborious financial procedures do not help the situation.

The management system at schools is not geared at driving a vision that is shared at the lowest levels by teachers. Most teachers are not aware what the overall vision of the Government is and how it translates into their day to day work, assuming there is any such vision. School management does not utilize or deploy teachers effectively and the top down transfer and redeployment approach of the Ministry of Education and Skills Development frustrates efforts to build effective teams in the schools. Management of schools is highly centralized. Class sizes are too large. The teachers are not deployed and capacitated to unleash their best potential.

We need to instill empowered leadership among school management to ensure that they impart and inculcate, consistently, to teachers and students alike, a compelling vision for an enriching and exciting learning experience.

Poor working environment for teachers

The never ending tug of war and conflictual relations between teachers and Government must give way to a harmonious relationship forged on mutual respect. Working conditions, working hours, remuneration, housing and other non-monetary incentives rarely afford the perfect solution, but Government can offer the requisite soundness and seriousness to instill or restore confidence among teachers that they are treated with the seriousness they deserve. Teachers need to enjoy they their profession and derive satisfaction in order to offer their very best to students.

Poor preparation of students for secondary education

International educational benchmarking by organizations such as UNESCO, shows that Botswana is particularly poor at primary school; the preparation ground for secondary schooling. This is not surprising given the relatively low outlays in both teachers and facilities at the primary school level.

We will not be able to fix the poor results at secondary school level until we significantly enhance facilities, teaching quality and school management at the primary school levels.

*Duma Boko is the Leader of opposition in the the Parliament of Botswana

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