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Feature Article of Monday, 17 September 2012

Columnist: Amponsah, John

On the Ministry of Education and the shocking BECE results

By John Amponsah

A few days ago (September 6th) there was an article in the news reporting the dismal performance of BECE students in the Sissala West District of the Northern Region. The news article reported that 70.9% of the students who took the BECE this year failed! This both shocked and dismayed me so I decided to investigate further to ascertain whether this was an isolated case or not.

It did not take long for me to pull out another shocking result, this time at the Bamease Local Authority Basic School. The news article entitled "OMG! Bamease L/A scores 0% in BECE" started off saying, "Bamease Local Authority (L/A) Basic School scored zero per cent in the recent Basic Education Certificate Examination (BECE).Another disturbing fact is that since the inception of the school in 1985, no girl had ever passed through the school to the Senior High School level. Reports indicate this has being going on over the years and little has been done to curb it." If this is true and it not depressing then I do not know what is.

Only days after these two reports emerged, we learned in a GNA report that thirteen schools in Agona West scored zero percent in the BECE! To top that up, the news report stated that the "percentage scored in this year’s BECE by the district was 34.1 as against 43.8 last year."

At this point I became very worried and questions kept ringing at the back of my mind. Do these three results a signal a much wider problem? Will more dismal results surface in the news? What is going on?

The logical course of action for me to take after this, I thought, was to go onto the Ministry of Education (MOE) website to find out more. Guess what? Ghana's Ministry of Education does not have its own dedicated website! In this day and age when digital information is almost indispensable, a Ministry as important as the MOE has no dedicated website. At first I did not believe it. I kept searching, I even went to internet repositories where archived websites are kept and there I found out that the last website for the Ministry of Education was put up by the previous administration, as www.moess.gov.gh, which stood for Ministry of Education, Science and Sports). This administration seems not to have put one up!

How embarrassing! Ghana is not just any African country. By African standards we are well known and our country commands a fair amount of respect. Even internationally we are well known. How can the MOE of Ghana not have its own website? Websites are not difficult to make but they are important for such a government body. A functioning and fairly decent website can be made in a week. A very good website can be made in less than a month. There is no excuse for the MOE of Ghana not to have its own website. Mr. Lee Ocran, this must be remedied. I call on the MOE to act in this regard. It is inexcusable.

To underscore how important the MOE is, let me bring the attention of the reader to the fact that the Human Development Index published by the UN consists of education, GDP and life expectancy indices. In our case, these translate into the Ministries of Education, Finance and Health. As one would expect, the Ministry of Finance has its own website (www.mofep.gov.gh), the Ministry of Health has its own website (www.moh.gov.gh) however within this crucial triad the equally important Ministry of Education is left out without its own website throughout the tenure of this administration. Where then, can someone like me – a conscientious Ghanaian citizen eager to learn more about what is being done by the MOE, where can I go to find authoritative information? Someone correct me if I am wrong, the MOE does not have its own dedicated website. What it seems to have is a space on www.ghana.gov.gh (most if not all of the other Ministries have one like this). In addition the MOE has a Facebook page which has very little on it. All of this is not acceptable, in my opinion.

Education is crucial and should not be neglected. On the website of the Ministry of Health, I saw this following quote:

“As a critical Sector of the economy, the Ministry of Health seeks to improve the health status of all people living in Ghana thereby contributing to Government's vision of transforming Ghana into a middle income country by 2015.”

This is the kind of statement I was hoping to see on the (nonexistent) website of the MOE, because in my view education definitely impacts the economy in a critical way.

I then thought, "Okay, they don't have their own website but maybe they are actually doing things to remedy the situation. If that is the case then these will somehow find their way into the news". That was my thought and my hope. So I resumed researching possible leads into what the government has published on remedying the poor BECE results situation. Unfortunately I did not come up with much, except some articles by Anis Haffar of the government-leaning Daily Graphic newspaper. The first one I read was entitled "How schools can achieve superior results in 2013". This was published in April 2012. The article claims to give "A Game Plan" meant to improve next year's BECE results.

Reading it felt like reading a policy document: lots of theory, lots of suggestions with no concrete implementation strategies. I did not find any concrete "Game Plan" throughout the article that translated policy language into an actual Action Plan. The author of the article places the responsibility of improving the BECE results primarily on the districts and on individual schools. The article talks about formative and summative assessment, about teaching and learning materials, methodologies, schemes of work but nothing about a concrete, grassroots national strategy to actually support teachers with training and to support schools with guidance from district and national levels, especially those in dire need. It is all well and good to talk about theory but what use is this to a teacher who has no idea what summative and formative assessment are? There is talk about schemes of work, yes these are important and should ideally be done at the departmental level within each school. But what is the use of suggesting a good idea without providing training to actually make that idea become reality? In truth, the responsibility to educate our youth lies both with the individual districts and with the government at the national level.

I also read an earlier dated article by the same author in the same paper (Daily Graphic) entitled "How to Improve BECE results, District-by-District". In this one I also found a lot of theory but more suggestions on what schools can do. I found some nice suggestions here but again there is zero indication of what concrete role the government at the district and national levels can play in making things better. It was all about saying "schools should do this, do that and the other!" How will government provide necessary and immediate infrastructure for children studying under trees? Which government body will inspect failed or failing schools to make sure that what is suggested to improve them actually happens, and what is their plan of action? It is not enough to suggest what schools should do, the MOE must also be proactive, must be on the ground to supervise and to lend a helping hand where needed.

The government, in fact all of us have to realize that we have a crisis on our hands. Children around the country are failing the BECE. It is now a national crisis that requires immediate attention. Are we going to see infrastructure being set up for children studying under trees? Are we going to see crisis intervention teams being set up between now and the next BECE to offer support to districts with very low to nonexistent BECE results? Are we going to see successful schools within districts team up with and share good practices with those schools that failed? Are we going to see government-sponsored consultants employed by the MOE inspecting failed or failing schools and failed or failing districts as well as providing training opportunities for those schools and districts who need it most? These were some of the real action pointers I was hoping to see in Anis Haffer's articles where a "Game Plan" was promised. Of course Anis Haffer did not speak officially for the ministry in those articles, which is why the MOE itself needs to make schools and the general population across the country aware of its short term and its medium-to-long term plans for improving basic education in our country.

The government better sit up and act now! As a nation, we have a problem on our hands! Doing some more research, I found that the opposition NPP has been talking about education now for some time so I decided to have a look at what this side was also saying. Again the information I came across was nothing short of depressing. One article dating back to October 26th 2011 had the title "BECE results worst in 13 years, DI calls for urgent action". Here there were some interesting numbers, "In sum, out of the total number of 1,121,817 students who sat for the BECE in the past three years, 574,688 failed to achieve the pass mark." If this is true then it really does underscore the crisis we are in as a country, as far as education is concerned. The article provides more numbers:

"The 2011 results of BECE students have been the worst in 13 years, using 1998 as the base year, with 46.93% of students achieving a pass rate and thus being eligible for placement into Senior High Schools. Out of the 375,280 students who sat for the 2011 examination, only 176,128 passed their examinations with the fate of 199,152 students now doomed to a grim future of uncertainties. In 2010, 350,888 students sat for the examination. 172,359 of them, representing 49.12%, achieved a pass rate. That was worse than the 2009 pass rate of 50.21%, confirming the worrying trend of worsening results. The 2008 batch of BECE students performed comparatively better than 2007 and 2009, with 210,282 students out of the 338,292 who sat the examination scoring between aggregates six and 30, thus meeting the requirements for placement into second-cycle schools under the Computerised Schools Selection and Placement System. This represents a percentage pass rate of 62.16%. Figures from the WAEC reveal that 61.28% of students, passed the 2007 BECE examination. While the average pass rate in the last 3 years, under the National Democratic Congress, has fallen by more than 12 percentage points to 48.75% the New Patriotic Party, in its 8 years, achieved an average pass rate of 61.25% for students who sat the BECE examination. "

These were the kind of numbers and trends I was looking for on the (nonexistent) MOE website(s) instead I found them on the DI’s website. If these numbers are true then it will appear that the BECE results have worsened over the past few years. That is if the numbers are accurate -- one can't argue with accurate numbers and accurate statistics. Now if that’s the case then why is this so? There must be a reason! It will be great for the MOE to make a statement to the Ghanaian public about why this has been the case. Not making such a statement could indicate apathy or complacency, both of which are untenable positions in this case.

However let us put politics aside for a second and consider that the actual problem we have on our hands: too many Ghanaian children are FAILING their basic education! What does this tell us? There is something wrong somewhere. Less than 50% pass rate in a national examination at the basic level is not acceptable. Even the 61.25% pass rate that the NPP say they averaged during their tenure is shamefully low in my opinion.

Why is it that the children are failing?!? We should be able to educate our children and we do not need to be a rich and powerful country to do this! Cuba is currently higher than Canada, Norway and South Korea on the 2012 education index, while on the same index Slovenia is higher than the US and even Kazakhstan is higher than Germany!

So we do not need to be rich and powerful as a nation to have a highly educated population. We just need to prioritise education! And we do not have to be communist to do this. We need an education system that not only makes sure that every child in the country has access to adequate opportunities for learning but also that these children have access to an education that is in line with our economic, scientific, moral and socio-cultural aspirations as a nation and as a people. It is no mean task but it is not impossible. During a trip to Kenya last December, I had the chance to speak informally with a head teacher of one of their secondary schools and I found out how modern their educational system is. And Kenya is not that much more affluent or more powerful than Ghana. It all comes down to prioritizing education and implementing strategies to achieve those higher levels.

Let me also just point out that it is my suspicion that there is a key structural fault with our current education system leading up to the BECE. Hanis Affar’s above article "How schools can achieve superior results in 2013" says that, "The BECE (or the Common Entrance Examination, as called in the past)..." Wait a minute! The BECE is NOT like the old Common Entrance Examination. There are at least two distinct differences between them: the first is that students who sat the Common Entrance Examinations were proceeding from primary school to secondary school. They were primary school Students! Second, the Common Entrance Examination had Quantitative and Verbal Aptitude portions which tested students on their basic Literacy and Numeracy skills and based on these results, they went to respective secondary institutions.

Herein lies the flaw: with the education system we have in Ghana today, there is no nationally administered summative assessment or cognitive aptitude test (that I am aware of at least) meant to gauge the learning skills, abilities and weaknesses that students have as they proceed from primary school to secondary school. It is presumed that they will be tested at the BECE level, at a time which I think is a little too late for the appropriate intervention to be put in place.

I wonder whether readers realize how monumental this is!! Our young children are literally sailing through the system on their way to failure at the BECE level with no prior standardized indication of or measure of whether or not they are literate! This is not acceptable, in my opinion.

Let me state this again for emphasis! At the moment, there is no nationally administered means (that I am aware of) of measuring how literate (or illiterate) children proceeding from primary school to secondary school are. The natural result of this is that the JHS systems get filled with some students who are adept at basic reading and writing and many who are not. No trend analyses are done to determine which districts and which schools are in urgent need of assistance to raise their literacy and numeracy levels. Now without basic literacy, none of the other BECE subjects are even accessible so even with the absence of teachers, studious and willing but illiterate children cannot engage in self study in preparation for their BECE examinations! Without basic literacy it is difficult to talk about other essential personal learning and thinking skills.

So this is a major problem! I wonder if the folks at the MOE have thought of this glaring fault/trend in the same or similar ways and if there have been any studies about it or efforts to remedy the situation. I strongly believe that basic literacy even precedes numeracy in importance; however both of literacy and numeracy skills are prerequisites for the 9 or 10 subjects that teenagers sit exams for at the BECE level. So please, put politics aside. I would like ask all stakeholders to seriously consider how to possibly plan to introduce a basic skills test for primary school students who are about to enter the JHS. This will serve the purpose of flagging those weak students for intervention before they are led to fail at the BECE level. It will help with the work of crisis intervention teams who should ideally start working with students and with schools long before their actual BECE examinations.

One final aspect I would like to talk about as far as improving BECE results is concerned is introducing at the JHS level in particular a strong notion of healthy competition and national recognition for high achievement as well as great improvement in individuals and in schools. I have read Mr Akuffo Addo's IEA speech where he outlines his party's Education vision (since they seem to be the only ones not in government that are publishing stuff) and I think he made many interesting points in regard to education, beyond just the free SHS scheme. Certainly it is a good idea to have a policy focusing on teachers, definitely at both the JHS and SHS levels, but what about the children who are going to be taught? What about them? A crucial ingredient I think I found missing from all stakeholders is this notion of introducing and encouraging healthy competition with nice rewards for individual students and for their schools, especially at the BECE level where we are hoping to improve upon those dismal results shown above.

I believe the entire educational sector will benefit from massive incentives not only for teachers but also and especially for students. Here is one concrete example/possibility of what I envision: Top 50 BECE results within each region - students get a laptop and meet the Regional Minister, possibly with names in local and national newspapers and recognition of their school. Out of the top 50 results, top 10 BECE results within each region not only get laptop but also get to meet the Minister of Education, get onto national television and get all expenses paid trip to another African country (for instance to the pyramids in Egypt or to Victoria falls) or even to a place like CERN or NASA with some national TV coverage. These teenagers will love something like this. There could be two kinds of school awards for each region: one for the best 3 schools (i.e. overall statistics including exam results) and another for the 3 most improved schools. The head teachers of these schools could meet with the President of the Republic for lunch and speeches in the presence of the Minister of Education, clergy, traditional leaders and other dignitaries. This can also be televised and the names of these schools can be in the papers. Possible bonus (financial and/or training/travel) packages for teachers across regions who perform exceptionally well in class and who produce exceptional results in their subjects, on top of all the packages and incentives teachers will be receiving for their jobs. Teaching should be one of the most sought after jobs in the country because of possible incentives such as these.

Allowing our young children to fail because of inadequate help from us the adults is not an option we should consider. No child should be failing at the BECE level. We should be aiming to double that 48.75% pass rate mentioned earlier to 97.5% As I mentioned earlier, Cuba is currently higher on the 2012 education index than Canada, Norway and South Korea. If we fail our children by failing to provide them not only with adequate education but also with learning support, they will end up out of school and on the streets. We do not want to have aimless and unemployable children on the street or even worse - angry teenagers disillusioned by their educational system and who want to get back at "the system". This happened in Soweto South Africa on June 16th 1976 when about 20,000 High School children went on riot and where as many as possibly 700 children met their end with thousands more being injured. This was in response to aspects of the scheme known as "Bantu Education", a mentally debilitating curriculum introduced by Apartheid era president (Dr) Verwoerd only for black children. At one point these children were forced to take up Afrikaans when other subjects were lacking. That was the trigger event, causing already heightened frustrations to erupt to dangerous levels. Last year the world witnessed London turn to flames when disenchanted youth aided by mobile phones and facebook took to the street, many of whom were school dropouts. Already here in Ghana there was a report in the news on September 13th this year entitled "Failed Students burn textbooks at St Martins JHS". This is not a good sign. We definitely want to prevent this kind of behaviour from manifesting, especially if it is caused by frustrated teenagers who have been failed by the system. Otherwise we will wake up one day to find out that the disturbing trends we are seeing today left unaddressed have mushroomed into an ugly nightmare that could have been prevented had the right measures been put in place.

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