Will Dow swim or drown?

SHARE   |   Monday, 07 March 2016   |   By Ditiro Motlhabane

Lauded as the first woman to be appointed a high court judge and having presided over Botswana's most expensive trial, the Minister of Education and Skills Development (MoESD) Dr Unity Dow’s ministry has been hit by severe turbulence. Having risen to stardom after gaining celebrity status for successfully suing government to have maternal rights recognised in the country's nationality laws, and her phenomenal judgment in the Basarwa case, Dow may have to dig deeper to tame the education sector currently on death bed. Educational matters are essential and core to the future of a country. If these do not warrant immediate and urgent attention of government, then nothing does.

Poor JCE and Botswana General Certificate in Secondary Education (BGCSE) results recently released and the crisis over the quality of education in some tertiary institutions have brewed a concoction that will require balls of steel to overcome and turn the tide in a ministry often dubbed the "exit" ministry. Dr Dow is aware that she is walking a tight rope. Her predecessors have failed dismally to resolve pertinent issues and improve results in education, leaving with heads lowered in shame and in some instances cast away into oblivion. Vice President Mokgweetsi Masisi led education - at one point having four political representatives alongside him – after Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi was brushed aside and demoted to a mere consultant when the results eluded her. Former Vice President and now ESP Coordinator Ponatshego Kedikilwe resigned the hot seat, while Ambassador to Japan Jacob Nkate's last cabinet job was at the helm of education.

Despite drawing the biggest budget from public coffers in recent years, the MoESD has become synonymous with failure of colossal proportions in junior certificate (JC), BGCSE and all. Researchers finger the non-existent culture of reading as a major contributor, as The Patriot on Sunday reported last week, while national libraries remain neglected and at best white elephants. The Director has been reduced to a bystander and a mere adviser as libraries throughout the country are barely resourced to execute their mandate. Dr Dow's mouthpiece at the ministry has repeatedly harped on the chorus that they are evaluating the poor results, which do not require analysis by a be-spectacled rocket scientist to show that the country is in the middle of a crisis, and has been for a number of years now. Such excuse is meant to buy time and has not fooled anyone. Haphazard piecemeal solutions provided by those who came before her only brought disaster, and built a mountain of problems she has to dismantle and pick up the pieces.  She has her job cut out.

Where to now for Dow?

Dr Dow's saving grace and only hope lies in the billions of Pula recently availed to her to swim or drown. She only has herself to fail and leave a legacy characteristic to her predecessors or she can feed detractors a humble pie by putting another star on her celebrity status. In his 2016/17 budget Minister of Finance and Development Planning Kenneth Matambo left the largest share of the Ministerial Recurrent Budget to the Ministry of Education and Skills Development, with a budget of P10.64 billion or 28.8 percent of the total. "Through the implementation of the Education and Training Sector Strategic Plan, Government is committed to ensure that issues of quality of education and skills mismatch are addressed. This substantial budget caters for, among others, teaching services’ wage bill, post-secondary bursaries, and subventions to University of Botswana and other Government funded tertiary institutions, increased enrolment for the Botswana International University of Science and Technology, provision for examination costs, maintenance of institutional facilities, food for secondary school students, and utility costs for the various education facilities," said Matambo.

Matambo said concerned with the declining education performance, Government adopted the Education and Training Sector Strategic Plan (ETSSP) in 2015, whose implementation is expected to address the quality of existing Vocational Education and Training programmes as a way of equipping the youth with appropriate skills. Furthermore, he said, the ETSSP will also increase equitable access to education by intensifying the use of Information, Communication and Technology (ICT) in learning. Under the ETSSP, an Early Childhood Policy Framework will be developed in partnership with the United Nations Children’s Fund to guide the implementation of Early Childhood Care and Development in the next five years. The acceleration of backlog eradication of classrooms and other education facilities under the ESP will help achieve some of these targets, he said.

Even with the mouthwatering kitty, the odds are stacked against her. Ironically, the very same issues targeted in the 2016/17 budget have led to the closure of some tertiary institutions last week. Dr Dow must have relied heavily on the promises in the budget when she squared up against SRCs from the two closed vocational colleges in a meeting which took the better part of Friday. Currently only 20 per cent of Batswana have tertiary education, which is higher than most sub Saharan countries. A thorn on the side of Dr Dow will be the growing concern that tertiary education in Botswana has been commercialised and politicians now own private institutions, which churn out uneducated graduates who cannot be absorbed in the workplace.

Could it be true that the politicians now move systematically to undermine government institutions to prop up their private ones? All institutions interested in offering tertiary education from Diploma programmes and above are required to register with the Botswana Qualifications Authority (BQA), which also conducts compliance monitoring.  The institutions would thereafter go through a process of accreditation after three years of registration or one year of operation. Notwithstanding the confidence in the budget, teacher trade unions remain pessimistic; pointing out that government has a reputation of failure at implementation. They also complain about being sidelined in finding solutions to a sector where they are strategic partners. The very same issues Matambo said government wants to address have been repeatedly cited by teacher trade unions as the major cause for declining results over the years. Perhaps government has started listening. The jury is still out on whether or not the billions allocated to education will provide the much needed solution.   

The massive investment in education was praised by Vision 2016 director of monitoring and evaluation, Dr Pelotshweu Moepeng last week at the Educated and Informed Pillar Conference. He said there are 300 secondary schools compared to 200 in 1996. Enrolment in primary schools is increasing. Dr Moepeng said to address poor results, improve the quality of education and produce globally competitive graduates there is an urgent need to address challenges like access to internet and the mismatch in skills and jobs. He said there was need to properly train teachers, provide enough textbooks and encourage Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in schools. Professor Jaap Kuiper, a curriculum advisor at the Department of Curriculum Development and Evaluation (CDE), proffers a solution. He suggests that Botswana should provide a variety of pathways at secondary school like technical vocational education and pay more attention to early childhood education. His suggestion is strongly supported by Head of Programme Development and Delivery in the Department of Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET), Batisitswe Pego. She said the TVET system has started yielding results with the employment rate of its graduates currently at 50 per cent.

Trade Unions speak out
The Botswana Public Employees Union (BOPEU) have strongly criticised government for the poor results. "This educational embarrassment is not new; it has been a national trend for some years now. This year we continue to see more youngsters at grade D being promoted to BGCSE. This effectively translates to the poor performance we have just experienced. Unfortunately this educational embarrassment is not only about the moment, it is about the bleak future of generations brought by an education system that does not address immediate concerns with the urgency they arise; the urgency they so vehemently require. To address this fiasco, we need as a country to act on an urgent basis to amicably find a solution.

As a country we cannot take comfort in the subject of deteriorating education system without visible action," wrote Topias Marenga - Secretary General of BOPEU. BOPEU suggests that Botswana urgently implements the three education Ministries system. Dividing the MoESD into three functional special areas will ignite better performance and bring about an improvement in the results, said Marenga adding that with such development there will be more focus by each ministry on their mandate. He said in turn such will improve efficiencies in the management systems within the Ministries. The union suggests that the MoESD be divided into Ministry of Pre-Primary and Primary education, Ministry of Lower and Higher Secondary Education, and Ministry of Tertiary Learning.

Botswana Sectors of Educators Union's Tobokani Rari also joined the bandwagon blaming government for the poor results in secondary schools in the last five years.  "Government refuses to address teachers' grievances. The poor results are unfortunate but it was expected, owing to the lackluster attitude of government in dealing with policy and welfare issues besieging the ministry," argues Rari. Essentially BOSETU single out The Automatic promotion and the two-tier education system, class sizes, lack of in-service training for teachers, and other welfare issues key among them hours of work in the teaching service.

An independent opinion
Educationist, Oabona Nthebolang, suggests in an opinion piece that juvenile/youth delinquency is largely due to escalating population of out-of-school youth in Botswana which is exacerbated by four exit points in the education system. "Year in, year out there are school drop-outs at Primary School Leaving Examinations, Junior Certificate Examinations, and Botswana General Certificate of Secondary Education levels, not leaving out tertiary education drop-outs. There are concerns that the school curriculum does not prepare the youth sufficiently for ‘life after school’ as such the youth find themselves in a helpless situation, with lack of basic needs and self-sustenance, they end up being frustrated, disillusioned and in despair and this ultimately leads to high levels of anger that culminates into them masquerading as violent gangs that terrorise members of the society for their hard-earned belongings," he said.

He said Botswana curricula failed to live up to its presumed benefits and that the current education system divorces the world of work from the world of learning. Van Rensburg (2001) contends, in fact, that the formal system of education, to which the hopes of so many have been pinned, has failed the great majority of people. The content of education is such that it does not prepare people to participate in economic life. Based on its presumed benefits, formal education was made (and continues to be) a massive priority in Botswana, however, instead of it opening up a wider world of opportunities, particularly employment opportunities, the opposite has been true for some. To nip youth delinquency in the bud is to chief amongst other alternatives empower and equip the youth with the prerequisite training and skills for ‘life after school’, and that calls for overhauling of the school curriculum to a more vocationalised one. There is need to promote Brigades, Technical and Vocational education in Botswana, so that it is seen as first choice than last resort as is the current norm, a serious misconception.


As outlined in the foreword of Youth and Adult Learning and Education in Southern Africa, Overview of a Five Nation Study (Aitchison, 2012) by OSISA Education Programme Manager, Wongani Grace Nkhoma pointed out that Botswana like many countries in Southern Africa is facing a critical and growing challenge, how to provide an education that meets the socio-economic needs of their bulging youth populations. She observed that primary and secondary school drop-out rates remain high across the country, so many children and youth end up outside the education system. Unable to return to school or to access technical and vocational education, they end up without the necessary skills to prosper in a world that is increasingly dependent on knowledge, the knowledge base economy. And there are very limited ‘second chances’ for these children and youth to learn in adulthood since the adult education sector also faces serious difficulties. Funding remains low, while gaps in policy formulation and implementation mean that the sector cannot adequately meet the current needs of the country’s adults, let alone the needs of the burgeoning population of out-of-school youth, she observed.