Friday, June 21, 2024

Education system faces historic transition problem nobody is planning for

A full-blown crisis in tertiary education that the government has not planned for and is sleeping on is taking shape as Form 5 students who didn’t complete their syllabus go to tertiary education institutions next year.

When they sat for their final examinations in a year dominated by COVID-19, some Form 5 students, especially those in the Greater Gaborone zone, had not completed the learning prescribed in the syllabus. This was a direct result of schools having to shut down during the national lockdown in April. In the particular case of Greater Gaborone, learning was disrupted by another lockdown in July and intermittent school closures for some schools when COVID-19 cases were discovered.

A teacher at a Greater Gaborone senior secondary school says that syllabi has not been completed across in the board, in all subjects. By the estimate of this teacher, only 75 percent of the syllabus was covered. While the examination process can be juggled around with to accommodate this highly unusual situation (by examining students only on course content that was covered), such creativity doesn’t extend to the next level of learning – tertiary education.

From pre-primary school to primary school to secondary school to tertiary education institutions (TEIs), learning and teaching are supposed and designed to be continuous. However, with 25 percent of senior secondary school syllabi not having been covered across all subjects, there is clearly no way that the BGCSE candidates are ready for university next year. This will affect curriculum continuity in terms of subject matter but what appears to be most obvious solution (universities closing the knowledge gap) is actually legally and practically problematic and therefore impossible.

All courses that are offered at universities have to be accredited by the Botswana Qualifications Authority. This means that legally, even if they could provide instruction that should have been provided at a lower (senior secondary school) level as a way of closing the learning gap, universities can’t do that because they don’t have legal authority to do so. Universities also have to deliver their instruction within a given period of time – closing the knowledge gap resulting from COVID-19 would eat into that time and they wouldn’t themselves be able to complete their own syllabi within the stipulated period.

This is a problem that could have been mitigated had the Ministry of Basic Education found common ground with the teachers’ trade union but that didn’t happen. While P1 million could be budgeted for a block of toilets that complied with COVID-19 protocols at a Mogoditshane primary school, no money was budgeted for overtime work that teachers could so. It would have been ideal for schools to offer lessons on weekends but the Ministry said that it couldn’t afford to pay overtime to teachers. In a past that seems to have gone forever, the Ministry would have made teachers work for free but since former President Festus Mogae allowed civil servants to unionise, that has become impossible. With little instruction time left and weekend off-limits, learning and teaching were severely compromised.

The teacher source reveals that the quality of final examinations craft projects by Form 5 students is generally so poor that they would have caused a major “national embarrassment” if they had to be sent abroad for marking like happened in the past. Adds the source: “If the payment of overtime had not been an issue, teachers would have helped students work on their projects during weekends. That didn’t happen and the results are reflected in the quality of the students’ craft projects.”

This is known to very few people but there is a lot of intrigue, some of it political, that happens behind the scenes with regard to the marking final examinations.  Across the globe, examinations authorities typically play around with grade thresholds – being the minimum number of marks that a candidate needs to obtain a particular grade in a paper or in a subject. These thresholds are decided after each examination has been taken and marked. What this means in the particular case of a year in which COVID-19 upended the learning process is that the Botswana Examinations Council will lower thresholds to ensure that enough students pass BGCSE. The number of places available at tertiary educations institutions are also considered when these thresholds are set. With 25 percent of the syllabus not having been covered, it is more than likely than grade thresholds will be set at a historic low in order that students can transition to the next stage of learning.

Some of those students will end up enrolling at the University of Botswana which, like all other TEIs, is not ready for first-year students with a 25 percent knowledge gap that it is not even legally empowered to close. Asked how UB plans to tackle this problem, the Director of Public Affairs, Mhitshane Reetsang, offered the following response: “The world, as does the University of Botswana, is aware of the challenges that came about with the COVID-19 pandemic. It has affected all sectors of the economy, education included. Be that as it may, we remain optimistic of the future, and that the teachers did their best to assist learners to catch up on lost time. Students who join tertiary education specialise in different programmes spread across faculties which may differ from the courses that the student did at secondary school, which means that Form 5s cannot repeat at university level. The University of Botswana always tries its best to assist students to succeed.”

COVID-19’s destructive work has been made easy by imperfections that have long existed in societies across the world. In the United States, the racism that has been part of American politics for centuries resulted in the sitting president, who has not even sought to hide his racism, throwing away a detailed pandemic response plan for the sole reason that it was developed by a black predecessor. In the particular case of the Botswana education system, there has never been a forum that brings instructors at different levels of the education system together.

With regard to the matter at hand, there is no formal working relationship between secondary school teachers who taught Form 5 students and university lecturers who teach these same students at university. Needless to say, this adversely affects curriculum continuity, notably subject matter. A college of education lecturer is already predicting that as first-year students at TEIs next year, the current crop of Form 5s will find it extremely difficult to cope with their studies, leading to an unprecedented number of them failing and discontinuing their studies.

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