Monday, November 23, 2020

Fresh exams: MSCE rerun and the future of education in Malawi

Eighteen days after the Ministry of Education and the Malawi National Examinations Board (MANEB) cancelled this year’s Malawi School Certificate of Education (MSCE) examination, students now have direction as to what happens next. On Sunday 22nd November the Ministry of Education released guidelines for secondary schools to follow in preparing for the re-take of the exams. There are still a few grey areas that need clarification, but the guidelines are a welcome action in moving forward. Most importantly, there are lessons to be learned from this national fiasco. We cannot afford to repeat the mistakes that led to the mess, or we will risk jeopardizing the future of the education system and the lives of many young Malawians.

Photo credit: Steve Sharra

The press release from the Ministry states that Form 4 students whose exams were cancelled are expected to report back to school on Monday 28th December. This applies to both public and private schools. No further fees shall be paid, as fees for the third term had not yet been exhausted when the examination was cancelled on 4th November. The release further states that government will bear the cost of both examination fees as well as practical examinations. The rerun of the MSCE exam shall be completed by the end of January, 2021, therefore newly selected Form 1 students will be expected to report to school on 1st February 2021. The rest of the continuing students, Forms 2 to 4, are expected back on campus on 5th January, 2021.

After schools were closed in March due to the covid pandemic, the new MSCE exams calendar was from 27th October to 20th November. Massive and widespread leakages and cheating unraveled days after the exams commenced. Papers were shared on social media platforms ahead of their scheduled time. That made it impossible to determine who might have had advance access to the papers and who might not, let alone what paper would leak next. Continuing with the rest of the exams became an untenable position.

Not all 150,000 students would have accessed the papers before sitting them, and the decision to cancel the exam was most painful for those students who did not participate in the cheating. But it was the entire examination and the country’s national education system that were at stake, hence the decision to cancel the exam and do it all over again.  

There have been a few questions and observations that have been asked or raised on various social media forums. Will the government absorb all the exam-related costs for private schools as well? Does this mean Form 4 teachers will not enjoy their New Year’s holiday? With students returning to school and the retake of MSCE commencing a few days later, will schools and students have adequate preparation? As there are some 35 or so days to the 28th of December, what should schools and students be doing in the meantime?

These are all valid questions, but as others have observed, we are dealing with an unprecedented situation which demands unprecedented solutions. After more than two weeks of silence from the Ministry since the cancellation, teachers, parents and students were becoming anxious as it was not clear what the way forward was. Unscrupulous elements were beginning to fill the void and taking advantage of desperate students.

The Ministry will need to further clarify some issues, but it is very commendable that they have taken the bold decision to own up and take responsibility for the mess. The government’s decision to cover all the costs related to the exams ensures that innocent students are not doubly penalized by paying more fees. Educational policies are meant to be implemented across the system, for both public and private schools. However private schools in Malawi have their own set of dynamics that may require policies and guidelines to be modified to suit particular contexts.

For example, some private schools have already recalled their students as we speak. No wise Form 4 teacher can afford to take it easy and wait until the 28th of December. Recalling students back to school before the 28th December entails costs that fall outside the government’s arrangement. Of concern here is the issue of inequality. Some students will have the means to continue preparing for the examinations between now and 28th December, while many students will not. Schools will need to consult with parents and students and find mutually agreeable ways of utilizing the time between now and the end of December.

When schools re-opened on 7th September after the covid-19 closure, there wasn’t much time for students to prepare for the exams which were scheduled to start on 27th October. Many students, especially the less privileged ones, did not have the structures and facilities to allow them to continue learning while they were at home. Many of them felt unprepared when 27th October arrived. Unfortunately, there is little to suggest that they will utilize the next 36 days in a better way. It will take the foresight of school leaders, the dedication of teachers and the commitment of parents to plan ways of keeping students engaged with their school work as they await the re-take of the MSCE.

Moving forward, there are important lessons to be learned from what has happened. Key to learning these lessons will be the findings from the various investigations that were announced by MANEB itself, the Anti-Corruption Bureau and the Ministry of Education. If it was not apparent before this crisis, national examinations are an integral part of the education system and are of national interest. The public has a big stake in the examinations. MANEB is a public institution and runs on taxpayer money. Thus the Ministry of Education must be accountable to the people of Malawi, and they know this.

The MSCE is a high stakes examination. The MSCE can open or shut a door to one’s future. With a tertiary enrollment of 0.8 percent, Malawi ranks at the bottom of global league tables for access to further education. As Professor Paul Tiyambe Zeleza has pointed out, this is a national scandal that needs urgent attention.

The problem is systemic because Malawi’s education sector loses students right from the pre-school level where only one in three children has access to early childhood education. One out of four children is out of school at the primary level, and four out of five youths are out of school at the secondary school level, according to the 2018 national population and housing census. Thus it is the entire pipeline that has a huge access problem, leading to the 0.8 percent tertiary enrollment rate.  

Examinations determine the futures of millions of young people and their families. National examinations also shape the international image of a country’s education system. There are jobs, tertiary education and other career paths awaiting students in their future. These depend a great deal on the integrity of national examinations.

Credit: Steve Sharra

The covid-19 pandemic has thrown an open challenge to rethink education systems for the future. Countries are now searching for ways to keep education systems going even when there are disruptions from pandemics, natural disasters or such other unforeseen crises. Countries must enhance their investments in educational technologies, including traditional ones. Learners must have books both at school and at home. Radios, televisions, computers and even mobile phones are very useful in providing ongoing education. More importantly, teachers must be properly educated in how to use these technologies and educational materials, especially in times of disruptions.

Beginning around 2011/12 MANEB engaged an extra gear in how they approached and prepared for national examinations. They crisscrossed the country engaging stakeholders, including communities, parents, the media and students themselves. This helped key stakeholders take ownership of the process to safeguard the security and integrity of national examinations. This did a lot to minimize incidences of leakages and cheating. When they happened, MANEB was able to move, identify the issue and isolate it, and address it with the relevant processes. The rest of the examinations were able to continue.

Something happened with the 2020 MSCE examinations. It is possible that covid-19 made it impossible for MANEB to do its usual stakeholder consultations and community sensitization of everyone’s role in ensuring the security and integrity of the examinations. As my colleague Dr. Limbani Nsapato observed, there is also the possibility that there were oversight slippages during the months when government parastatals, which include MANEB, went without Boards of Governors as we transitioned from the previous government to the current one. Only the investigations will help us know for sure.

It is therefore imperative that the investigations are carried out and completed, and that the reports are released, and utilized for the retake of the MSCE, and for future examinations. Failure to learn from this will create an existential crisis for the future of MANEB and the country’s educational system.