Feature Article of Monday, 30 April 2012

Columnist: Sarfo, Silas

Scrapping The BECE And Secondary Education For All

Some political parties and persons have strongly advocated that compulsory education in Ghana should be extended to secondary education and the Basic Education Certificate Examination (BECE) should be scrapped so that it is no longer a barrier in the path of the pursuit of education for a better life.

To start with, scrapping the BECE may sound too drastic, but it merits serious consideration in view of the staggering amount of Junior High School (JHS) students that are not able to progress to Senior High School (SHS) every year because they are not able to triumph over the BECE. And even though they are allowed to go back to their various schools to re-register and rewrite alongside the candidates of the next academic year, the reality is that most are not able to do so. Some of them become so greatly disheartened that they are virtually demotivated and devoid of confidence to again spend countless hours assimilating the contents of the whole three-year syllabus of JHS for another attempt at overcoming this pivotal examination.

There are a number of reasons why so many students find it very difficult to cope with the BECE, but in the first place,* *why must such a high-stakes examination barrier be created between JHS3 and SHS1, which is very different from the permitted progression from Primary 6 to JHS1?

Is it not rather unfair that these juvenile final year students who have been able to gradually progress after having written many exams in the course of many terms over the years (from JHS1 to JHS2 to JHS3) are required to have to go back through every single thing that they had previously painstakingly studied for and were examined on from JHS1 all the way through to JHS3, and then have to struggle to keep hold of all of it in its entirety in their memory in order to contend with a gruelling five-day long high-stakes examination that will determine their fate concerning the prospect of further education in life and the opportunities it can provide?

It is apparent that quite a lot of these young students find it hard to cope with this load and intense pressure that is brought to bear on them. But why do they have to be put through so much stress at this rather early stage of life? Unfortunately for so many of them, this pivotal examination is the termination point of formal education in their lives. But how true is it, as some suggest, that their poor performance indicates that they do not possess the aptitude for secondary school education?

It might interest the reader to know that even the late widely acclaimed genius and Nobel laureate, Albert Einstein, whom many regard as the greatest physicist of all time, failed several subjects in a similar set of examinations he sat at the age of sixteen.

As regards the aptitude for secondary school education of the annual several thousands of students who are denied admission to SHS because of their poor BECE results (about 200,000 last year alone), it would be a different matter if it is the case that they are hardly able to read and write; but as long as they are proficiently literate and bearing in mind that the goal of education is primarily to acquire knowledge, cannot they still gain some further knowledge through education at secondary school?

Even if it is true that some students are not naturally endowed with certain aptitudes that are needed to be able to cope with certain intellectually demanding subjects, is there not a range of secondary school subject groupings from which to choose that should be able to accommodate them?

We must also keep in mind that there are many who are late bloomers in life. The fact that some did not perform very well during their primary education does not automatically mean that they are likely to be academically weak throughout their lives, but whatever be the case, secondary education is a very important stepping stone for a better life.

In this age in which we live, people are better educated now than ever before. The last two decades in particular have been characterized by an increasingly globally competitive environment that has appreciated the growing importance of education in overall economic growth and individual opportunity. Rising educational attainments in populations throughout the world has necessitated increases in general levels of education in favour of having better educated individuals in the labour market. Those who complete their secondary education generally have more job opportunities and earn higher pay than those who do not.

Even Bill Gates, the founder of the world’s largest software company who famously dropped out of college to pursue his passion to develop computer software, publicly remarked that higher education is crucial for jobs in today’s world and therefore a high school education is no longer enough. If, according to him, higher education is now crucial for jobs, what more could be said of secondary education?

And of course, because secondary education provides the foundation for higher education, most universities and colleges demand that a person must have completed his or her secondary education before he or she can be considered for admission.

In addition to the merits above, secondary education helps to keep adolescents, who constitute the vast majority of secondary school students, focused and engaged in life, thereby decreasing the chances of them falling prey to social vices at a stage in life that they are more prone than adults to do things that are rash and ill-considered.

Although adolescents may display adult-like levels of maturity in some respects, they have been well known to lack maturity with regard to choosing to do whatever they feel they want to do without properly considering the consequences of their actions. Their high levels of emotional arousal, increasing self-awareness that they are able to independently decide whatever they want to do in life and lack of experience in life with regard to the importance of self-discipline gives rise to a tendency for them to be easily carried away by their instincts and all kinds of excitement-seeking activities; as well as a tendency to be seeking instant gratification rather than working hard for a living.

So, secondary school education can help to keep them more focused at this stage of life and promote mental discipline until they have finished school, by which time most have reached the age of 18 and therefore are more capable of making mature, responsible decisions about what they actually want to do with their lives. Sadly, in many parts of the world, people who drop out of education early account for the majority of prison inmates.

On the other hand, it is also important to acknowledge the fact that for several of those who were not able to proceed beyond JHS, vocational training centres and informal vocational training have played an important skills-training role. However, whereas vocational training is able to train JHS graduates right away for specialization in a particular occupation, the reality is that more occupational opportunities are available in the labour market for those who have been able to gain further academic qualifications.

What is more, it evidently appears that adolescence, which is the stage of life that is representative of fresh JHS graduates, is an ideal period in life for academic learning.

Adolescence is a period of significant brain growth and development during which one’s intellectual ability to study, analyze, reason, evaluate, hypothesize and logically solve problems is greatly enhanced.

New neuroscience research has shown that in addition to the first few years of life, from about 12 years of age to early adult life the human brain grows at a rapid and dramatic pace. Vast amounts of brain cells or neurons are produced just before puberty and then diminish in number throughout adolescence through a "use-it-or-lose-it" elimination process.

To explain further, as the brain processes information, neurons join together to form connections or neuronal networks by which information is communicated in the brain. In due course, the clutter of neural connections that are formed, but not used will wither and die, but the more that neuronal connections that are formed are stimulated and used repeatedly as and when the brain is actively engaged, the likelier they are to survive and flourish.

Thus, those who are continually stimulating their brains by actively engaging it in frequent learning and critical thinking and challenging it by trying to understand abstract concepts and solving mathematical problems are stimulating the neural networks that process information in their brain, thereby increasing the richness and complexity of the connections between them and the capacity for these networks to process increasingly complex information efficiently.

It is postulated that as and when these continual intricate processes take place during adolescence, at which time there is a vast production of neural connections, they significantly contribute towards the structural enrichment of the brain that is being taken into adulthood; thus, adolescence is a window of opportunity with regard to the facilitation of the development of a smarter brain for life.

Therefore, not discounting the fact that an adolescent brain’s enhanced capabilities are also useful for learning vocational skills, it evidently appears advantageous if at this stage of development in life much attention is given to academic studies.

Alternatively, some educationists advocate for a combination of specialized vocational skills programmes and broad academic study programmes. The implementation of this type of educational scheme was one of the key original intentions behind the Junior Secondary School (JSS) educational system, but it appears that it was not quite as successful as it was originally intended to be.

One reason why may be that the JSS vocational training perhaps was not intensive enough for proficient practical application in the real world and thus JSS graduates needed further vocational training. It also appears that in most cases all of the students in a class were required to learn a particular predetermined vocation such as catering and therefore did not have the freedom to choose to learn vocations that interested them individually. Another inadequacy was that most fresh JSS graduates apparently tended to lack maturity with regard to their capability of being self-employed and running a small business responsibly and competitively enough to be able to thrive on their own.

In view of the fact that SHS graduates are generally more mature and capable of fending for themselves, perhaps it will be better if mandatory vocational training is rather implemented as an SHS programme. With the exception of a few SHS elective programmes (such as Science) that are absolutely essential for certain higher education courses, perhaps vocational training should completely or mostly replace the elective subjects offered at SHS. (However, the higher education institutions in Ghana must first agree to the premise that good grades in the core SHS subjects should be the main requirement for most higher education courses.) Four years of SHS may provide enough time for skilled vocational training (if BECE is scrapped, two years of JHS rather than three will probably suffice).

In order to facilitate the opportunity for students to be able to be trained in vocations of their own choice, perhaps collaborative arrangements and scheduling should be worked out that will allow students to choose to receive apprenticeship training in the vocations of their choice at work sites that they will have to go to on a weekly basis. In addition, roaming supervisors can be assigned to provide regular reports of the students’ progress.

Undeniably, there will be some difficulties associated with the implementation of the above suggestion, but if these can be resolved, the inclusion of vocational education will bolster the role that secondary schools in Ghana play in imparting knowledge that is able to offer a person more opportunities for a better life.

Furthermore concerning the impartation of knowledge for a better life, it will be profitable if a wider range of subjects, such as small business management, personal development and global studies, are included as core subjects in the SHS curriculum to provide broader general knowledge foundations, designed to produce well-rounded individuals that are equipped for life in this in this new era of knowledge-driven economies and globalization.

Concerning the great challenge of funding secondary education for all, the founder of the Progressive People’s Party, Dr. Paa Kwesi Nduom, has compellingly advocated that the following clause of the Directive Principles of State Policy (the first clause of Article 38) of Ghana’s constitution must be a guiding principle: “The State shall provide educational facilities at all levels and in all the Regions of Ghana, and shall, to the greatest extent feasible, make those facilities available to all citizens”.

Given that about one-fifth of our national budget is currently spent on education, with particular reference to what is considered to be “the greatest extent feasible”, our nation’s capacity to fund secondary education for all can be considerably determined by what things our nation regards as priorities and therefore what other things may have to be sacrificed in order to obtain the things that are regarded as a priorities. Regarding this prospect, the adage “Where there's a will, there's a way” comes to mind. (However, with regard to boarding school, funding should not be a national priority because though the boarding school experience has some considerable social benefits, it is not as necessary as secondary school instruction.)

As a final point, if it indeed happens that the BECE is scrapped, some form of nationwide standardized testing at each grade level may have to be seriously considered.

Unfortunately, individual teachers or schools’ evaluations of students are not always reliable. While one teacher or school’s assessment of a student’s achievement might be a D or F, another’s assessment of the same might be an A or B. Regrettably, there have been quite a few instances where barely literate students have been repeatedly approved to move on to higher grades. (Such students ultimately failed catastrophically in the BECE because apart from the stressful experience of contending with the BECE, they were hardly able to read and write.)

Therefore, as challenging as the implementation of nationwide standardized testing at each grade level may be, it will be significantly useful for reliably assessing whether students are making adequate yearly progress and thus for reliably identifying students who may require special attention, probation or having to repeat a class. Nationwide standardized testing at each grade level will also be more manageable and less stressful for students than the BECE.

By Silas Sarfo