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Opinions of Friday, 23 April 2010

Columnist: Thompson, Nii-Moi

Time to Abolish the BECE

By Nii Moi Thompson

On April 19, 2010,

some 351,000 junior high school students herded into examination halls across the country to begin the grueling annual ritual of taking the Basic Education Certificate Examination (BECE). Many were those who wished them well, but if we knew the predetermined fate of nearly half of these students, we would weep for them instead and ask very hard questions of ourselves as a nation and of course about our educational system. You see, the BECE is structured in such a way that no matter how hard these students studied, no matter how much their parents paid for extra classes, and no matter who wishes them “good luck”, as has become the tradition every year, about 40% of them are programmed to fail. Period.

The government’s Preliminary Education Report of 2004 says it all:

“The BECE is the examination taken at the end of the basic education cycle, which determines whether or not a pupil is able to progress on to a second cycle education. Performance Monitoring Test (PMT) and Criterion Referenced Test (CRT) had been used to assess performance throughout the basic cycle, but with the development of a new continuous assessment system in the pipeline (see section 4.3.3.1 below), these have not been implemented since 2002. The BECE is then the only available outcome indicator with which to measure achievement and so the quality of basic education currently available.”

The report continues: “In 2003, 61.6% of entrants nationally, attained an aggregate grade between 6 and 30, the level required to enable them to enter second cycle education; in 2004 this figure was 61.3%. The BECE examination is structured so as to ensure that approximately 60% each year gain this aggregate grade, and so little variation is to be expected.”

Not surprisingly, the pass rates from 2006 to 2009, as reported in the media, were as follows: 61.94% (2006); 61.30% (2007); 62.17% (2008); and 62.4% (2009). Just as the GES wanted it.

Evidently, this policy was adopted in order to limit the number of students who seek admission to the nation’s overcrowded public secondary schools, which have seen little expansion over the years even as the national population has quadrupled since the 1950s. This of course is a typical Ghanaian approach to dealing with social problems: Accommodate them and wish that they would go way, rather than confront them boldly, creatively, effectively as is done elsewhere.

Terminating the education of so many children at such a tender age ostensibly because of low academic performance also ignores the universal fact that some children are naturally late developers – as was the case with Albert Einstein, for example, who turned out to be one of the most celebrated geniuses of our time. Imagine if Einstein had failed the equivalent of the BECE in his childhood….

Many students are also victims of a broken educational system with low quality of teaching. A book written by a teacher and foisted on students at one of the many unregulated “international schools” in Accra had the following among the many egregious errors in it: “as mention in the above”; “information in it’s memory”; “the above parts is eliminated”; “three main part of the computer”; “when joint together” – and many horrifying others. Is it any wonder that some schools end up with zero pass rates?

And even those passing the BECE are not guaranteed progression to the next stage of their education. In the November 5, 2009, edition of the Ghanaian Times, an official of the GES was quoted as saying that from 2006 to 2008, between 61.31% and 62.17% of candidates “qualified by the aggregate criterion for placement but the capacity for enrolment into the first year of secondary and technical schools ranged between 37.4% and 45.1% of the turnout”.

That means that close to three-quarters of junior high school students may not go to secondary school, including some who pass the BECE. This is both cynical and cruel, to say the least. Factor in the heavily corrupt Computerized Placement System that deprives some qualified students of their chosen schools (Anas, where are you?) and we have a crisis-ridden educational system in need of massive and immediate reform.

Ultimately, only 3-4% of university-age students end up at our tertiary institutions (again due to limited space), compared to a rate of 89% for South Korea, for example. About 38% of our labor force have “never been to school”; another 52% have only a BECE education or less, with only 10% having “secondary education or higher,” according to the Ghana Statistical Service. This is hardly the profile of a 21st century labor force heading for middle-income, and ultimately high-income, status.

Surely, mining and (soon oil and gas) can (artificially) inflate our per capita income, as it did for Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, and on paper we can become “middle income” in a matter of years, but the true wealth of a nation lies not in its minerals but its people. A well-educated and highly-skilled population that is confident in its ability to provide for itself and take on the rest of the world would reproduce itself indefinitely; a people dependent on natural resources with a semi-literate labor force are doomed to the margins of the global economy (and sometimes even their own economies) for many, many centuries to come.

Our developmental and educational choices thus couldn’t be any clearer. The BECE must go. Now.

The government’s current emergency plan to provide more facilities for the 4-year SHS temporarily, commendable as it is, should be transformed into a permanent policy and strategy to expand the capacity of the nation’s public secondary schools and make high school education the minimum that every Ghanaian child must have – both as a right and as a self-interested strategy for our collective survival in a world where increasingly even first university degrees are becoming inadequate and the best-paying jobs now require “at least a master’s degree.” Download this as a file