me start with a disclaimer. I am not an expert in educational measurement,
evaluation and assessment. These are highly specialised areas in educational
research dealing with tests and examinations, and Malawi has quite a number of
experts in the disciplines. My familiarity lies with curriculum, pedagogy,
educational policy and teacher education. So my views in the ensuing discussion
pertain to the policy implications of the decision, by the Malawi government, to
abolish the Junior Certificate of Education (JCE), in the broader context of
Malawi’s education system.
factors make the decision to abolish the JCE a monumental one. Debate on the
JCE has been around for some time, although it was rather informal and
sporadic. There have been research studies on educational assessment in Malawi,
and a recommendation to abolish the JCE goes back to 2004, according to a study
titled Student testing and assessment
reform done by Kadzamira, E., Moleni, K., Kholowa, F., Nkhoma, M., Zoani,
A., Chonzi, R., and Chigeda, A.
to a 2013 article by Dr. Bob Chulu, Dean of the Faculty of Education at
Chancellor College, in the journal Assessment
in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, research studies in
assessment have shown that school-based assessments are more effective than national
examinations. The Malawi Government has been gradually evolving toward continuous
assessment as a more effective mode of evaluating students.
or later, the JCE was going to be abolished, more for reasons of educational
efficiency and the improvement of teaching and learning, than for economic
exigency. It was only a matter of how and when to make the decision. Two
questions now stare us in the face. First, whether the manner in which the
decision has been arrived at has taken care of all the cautions issued and
recommendations made by research studies. Second, where do we go from here?
reported by the Daily Times of Monday21st September, the decision to abolish the JCE has come as part of
the on-going Public Service Reform Programme (PSRP). Government ministries,
agencies and parastatals are doing internal scrutiny and deciding for
themselves how and what to reform. The suggestions are taken to the PSRP
Commission, where they are further scrutinised and debated, before making a
decision on them and passing it on to the president. What this means is that
the changes announced last week came from MANEB itself. The president merely
approved them, probably after being convinced, by way of the commission’s
large, the public service reforms are a much-needed and welcome change for
Malawi. The country’s future depends on them. We cannot continue business as
usual, lest we manifest Albert Einsten’s definition of insanity: doing the same
thing repeatedly and expecting different results each time (I just learned this is a mis-attribution). As long as the
internal process itself is systematic, consultative, and rigorous, we can rest
assured of a process that will bear good fruit. Whether that indeed is the case
will be known in due course.
to the JCE question, a number of factors complicate the way in which the
decision has been made. The first factor is that the reforms are happening at a
time when the Malawi economy is undergoing severe problems. While it is true
that necessity is the mother of all inventions, the danger in our circumstances
is that institutions may be tempted to think of reforms dictated more by
economic necessity than by the desire for wholistic efficiency. There is great
risk here that the economic factors could triumph over common sense and end up
skewing the reforms. This is not to question the timing of the reforms. It is the perfect timing. But the risk for skewed reforms needs to be taken seriously. In any case, and as Austin Madinga pointed out on his
Facebook page, “it had to start somewhere.”
second complicating factor is the efficiency, or lack of it, of our educational
system. The majority of Malawians who start school dropout and never finish.
About 900,000 enter school every year and after seven years about 700,000 drop
out, according to government statistics (ESIP II, 2014). Only about 90,000 make
it to secondary school yearly. This decision means that we will have millions
of Malawians who attended some schooling but left with nothing to show for it. Countries
that do not have the equivalent of the JCE tend to be countries whose dropout
rates are negligible. Ours are some of the highest on the planet.
idea of having people request for their Standard 8 transcript means that the
majority will choose not to for reasons others have pointed out. It is true
that both the Standard 8 and the JCE certificates are no longer valuable for
employment. But this is based on faulty thinking, as I will explain in a
third factor relates to the message being sent about the value of education up
to Form 3, as I have pointed out elsewhere. This is an unintended consequence
concealed in the justification given for the decision to abolish the
examination. The message to students, teachers and parents is that none of this
education is important, until a student reaches Form 4. This reasoning emanates
from what we could call, for lack of a better term, the kick-away-the-ladder
syndrome, borrowing from the South Korean and Cambridge University economics professor, Ha Choon Chang.
argument given by the government, that the JCE has lost its value and is not
demanded by employers emanates from this syndrome. It can only be made after
one has ascended to the roof and now thinks one no longer needs the ladder. So
one kicks it away. The success is being mistaken for the path. The fact that
you have now reached the roof does not mean you did not need the ladder all
along. Sending this message about the value, or lack thereof, of education up
to Form 3 can erode seriousness amongst students, teachers and parents. Though
unintended, it is the wrong message to send.
fourth factor is using employment demands to drive educational policy. This is
a tricky one. While it is undeniable that employment is an overriding aim of
education, focusing strictly on employment demands restricts the purposes of
education. The purpose of education, as the late Tanzanian president Mwalimu Julius
Nyerere pointed out in 1968, is to prepare students to thrive in and contribute
positively to their society. People contribute to society in more ways than
dictated by employment demands. Democratic citizenship is an equally important
purpose of education, which should not play second fiddle to employment demands.
fifth factor complicating this decision is the speed and volume of the changes.
There have been no less than four major educational changes announced in a
space of eleven days in September alone. And more are coming. There is a new
secondary school curriculum now. There are new national educational standards. Many
simultaneous changes could potentially send a shockwave through the education
system. I don't envy the Ministry of Education officials, DEMs, PEAs and head teachers
who have to implement all these radical changes all at once. We should consider
introducing them in phases to allow for an orderly change management process.
getting rid of the JCE, MANEB has offered continuous assessment as a
replacement. Dr. Chulu observed, in his journal article, that continuous
assessment was suggested to MANEB several years ago, and MANEB rejected it for
reasons to do with security and reliability. Now that MANEB seems to have
changed its mind, it is time to revisit the models suggested by assessment
experts. Continuous assessment is not easy to conduct.
pilot study done in Ntcheu in the early 2000s found that although it improved
student performance, it was taxing. Teachers found it very demanding,
especially in large classes. Teachers implementing continuous as part of the
current Primary Curriculum and Assessment Reform (PCAR) have since complained
that they spend more time filling forms and recording numbers than preparing
for teaching. Rather than improve teaching and learning, this form of busy work
has worsened matters.
forward after the abolition of JCE will require meticulous caution. There will
be need to consult widely, from students to teachers to parents and other
stakeholders. Continuous assessment works in contexts where classes are small.
The target of 60 students per teacher which Malawi has been aiming at for the
past decade is far from the ideal, as anyone who has taught young people will
testify. The only reason that ratio appears in our policy documents is because
the status quo is unimaginable. We have perhaps the highest teacher-pupil
ratios in the world. The official one appearing in policy documents, 1:78, is
far from the reality on the ground. The national ratio obscures the true
numbers in the lower grades.
need to be well educated, and resources need to be available for continuous
assessment to succeed. A Zambian study on continuous assessment confirmed the
problems caused by large classes and lack of teaching and learning resources
(Kapambwe, 2010). It also identified student absenteeism and poor monitoring
and feedback by district officials as other compounding factors.
challenges are common to Malawi as well. If the money saved from these
decisions does not go towards addressing the identified challenges and making
conditions more conducive for continuous assessment, we will be courting worse disasters
down the road.
is a paradox about examinations. They influence teaching and learning because students,
teachers and society tend to take them as the ultimate goal of education. They
become self-reinforcing. This paradox extends to global educational role
models. Finland, considered to have the best education system in the world, has
only one national examination, taken at the end of secondary school. East Asia
(China, Singapore, South Korea), which now produces the highest student
performance scores in the world, relies on a heavy, punishing examination
regimen. Some students commit suicide in the process.
paradigm shift is underway in global education, moving from education for
employment towards education for creativity and innovation. The rationale for this
shift is that nobody can predict the world of the future, so it does not make
sense to educate students for employment. Better to educate them for creativity
and innovation so they can adapt their knowledge to solve problems unknown
There are good models Malawi can learn from. But removing the
examinations without a careful, deliberate process could create a vacuum that
could paralyse the system. We need to proceed very carefully and put in place
long term plans, guided by meaningful consultations. Or else we will be solving
a few problems while creating bigger ones.
Labels: Bob Chulu, Chancellor College, continuous assessment, JCE, Malawi education, MANEB, PCAR, Public Service Reform