‘We need a new education policy’

SHARE   |   Monday, 23 July 2018   |   By Dr Philip Bulawa
Naledi Senior Secondary School students during a science experiment Naledi Senior Secondary School students during a science experiment

Poor performance to continue in 2018


Fear, anxiety as examination season arrives

The perpetual decline in students’ academic performance especially in junior certificate and BGSE examinations has become such a major issue of national concern and subject for public debate. At this time of the year the public, and in particular parents whose children attend public secondary schools begin to be anxious about the extent to which students will perform in their final examinations. Such panic mode is justified in view of the students’ dismal academic achievement over quite a long period of time now, and where there was any semblance of improvement, it was indeed negligible. Against this trend, performance in 2018 will not be any different from what has now become a normal trend. In the unlikely event that there is some kind of an improvement in performance, my view is that it will be too insignificant to make any consequential difference.


The fundamental question we’ve been asking ourselves as a nation is why such continuous and consistent decline of this magnitude? The discourse pertaining to student academic decline has centred on a number of possible causal factors, including large class size, poor working conditions for teachers, shortage of both exercise and text books, long distances learners have to travel to the nearest school, lack of parental involvement in their children learning, student indiscipline and so on. Some people have actually put the blame squarely on government’s failure to implement the Revised National Policy on Education (RNPE) of 1994 or government heavy investment on a performance management system (PMS) that was never contextualised to education. There can be no doubt that some of these factors individually or combined might have had a significant contribution to the worst academic results in recent years, but they are not subject for discussion in this article.

The focus of the article is the current education system which I consider to have precipitated decline in students’ academic performance. This current system of education has existed since independence more than fifty years ago, with very little changes. While I appreciate that it has served us relatively well over a long period of time, the reality is that with the passage of time it became archaic and we needed to entirely change it and adopt a new education system altogether. Looking back I believe 1993/94 was the right period of time we should have changed this education system which was and still is a legacy of the British colonial education system to make it more relevant as we were approaching the 21st Century with all the evidence that the entire world was shifting to knowledge based education. As things stand, this was an opportunity missed and instead we came up with the Revised National Policy on Education (RNPE), a policy document that was more of a catalogue of things needed to rejuvenate an already archaic system that was no longer redeemable.


The policy recommended mere cosmetic modifications to syllabuses that favoured a few academic abled learners. As I pointed out earlier this is a legacy of the British colonial education system, which the former colonial master long abandoned. The tragedy is that we’re still stuck with a system that is mainly theory based and promotes and rote learning, thereby marginalising a huge cohort of children with different learning abilities induced by our country’s adoption of the policy of universal education for all. The consequence of our ineptitude to act accordingly in the interest of the learners was a fatal mistake we are now living to regret as we reap the fruits of our fallibility in the form of deplorable student academic achievement that has continued for several years unabated. Of course the idea of universal education was great but only when we also took cognisance of the need to usher in an all embracing education system because it is mainly the beneficiaries of this modus operandi who have found it difficult to fit into this old and examination oriented type of system. The fact of the matter is that these kids are not failing but continue to be disadvantaged by a system that was never meant for them. The adoption of the policy of education for all and automatic promotion from one level of education to another should have been coupled with multiple pathways as an opportunity for children to make a choice of what they prefer to learn and are capable of comprehending. This is what all progressive countries do, creating diverse and distinct education systems that take into account the divergent interests and learning abilities of all children.

I am aware of some of the Ministry of Basic Education’s mitigation initiatives genuinely undertaken to try and turn around the system and hopefully effectively deal with the glitch of low academic performances. I highly appreciate such efforts, but my contention is that such initiatives are as good as flogging a dead horse because we’re dealing with a more complex challenge that requires more than just supervision, professional development, reduced class size or parental involvement. The problem is that the education system we adopted at independence was never intended to accommodate children with different learning abilities and styles. It’s a system that can no longer be reformed but only deserves to be completely thrown out. Those of my generation and beyond would recall that in the early 1970s, the same system only admitted the academically gifted learners such that only those who attained grade “A” or upper “B” in their PSLE were admitted for junior secondary school, a situation that also applied to learners’ selection for what was then Cambridge following completion of junior certificate.


Undoubtedly, the underlying point here is that the system accommodated only the academically gifted, which could have meant that most of these children enjoyed schooling as the curriculum suited them, and were almost certain that they would succeed in their examinations. Back then it was quite common for instance, for most students to attain grade Merit, A, B, with only a handful Cs and not a single one failing their junior certificate, a situation that also translated itself into excellent academic performance at Cambridge level. In other words you could easily have 80% of the students getting Merit, A, & B, and to expect quality results now when all your D, E and unclassified students proceed to a higher level is being unrealistic. There can be no doubt that such lower achievers hardly enjoy school and obviously spend most of their time idling peeping through windows due to lack of interest in subjects that do not suit their intellect. This kind of environment could easily breed student indiscipline of different kinds, a situation that would go a long way into adversely affecting the performance of learners as we witness today.

It is not as if students with low learning ability in academic subjects that are theory based lack intelligence, but rather that their strengths are in other areas of interest such as those advocated by the founding father of the Brigades in Botswana, Mr Patrick Van Rensburg. It still baffles me that he seemed to have been the only one way back in the 60s who had the vision of what of what was to come in the 21st Century namely, knowledge based education. He accorded children who could not excel in academics but excelled in other fields of education such as vocational education offered by the Brigades at such institutions as Swaneng, Shashe River, Tutume and Madiba to showcase their potential and talent. Those who went to Swaneng will recall the glory days of Farmers’ Bridages which had the capacity to supply Serowe and surrounding areas with a variety of dairy products including cheese, milk and yogurt never seen before in many other parts of the country. Further unique about Swaneng were skills in such practical subjects as building science, woodwork and metal work attained by students on completion of their JC.


As fate would have it, it is only now that it has dawned on many of us that we should embrace the principle of pathways, something Mr Van Rensburg sold to this nation for implementation more than fifty years ago.  Had we paid heed to his idea of giving priority to technical/vocational/hands on type of education, there would be no such high failure rate in our schools. The current high rate of low academic achievement particularly in secondary schools is not real but a creation of an irrelevant education offered to a large number of students who do not suit in such a system. In fact, the problem is no longer that the students are failing in large numbers, but the problem is us as a nation as for a very long time we seem not to have been able to see beyond the very old and irredeemable system of education.

In conclusion while it has taken so long to be visionary, the Ministry of Basic Education needs to be commended for having ultimately, seen the need to embrace the Education and Training Sector Strategic Plan (ETSSP) with outcomes based education and pathways as future integral components of our education. This is the way to go and I’m convinced that the time is now to begin to give priority to ETSSP as with it, we stand a great chance of catching up with the rest of the world in the achievement of knowledge based education. This calls for government’s bold decision to begin to put in place strategies of phasing out the current education system and replace it with the newly adopted strategy. I’m aware some sceptics may argue that implementation of ETSSP will be very costly, and to those I would say if you need quality and compete with the best, you should be prepared to spend heavily. I must however, point out that while government has taken a decision to implement pathways after junior certificate, my viewpoint is that it would be more beneficial to the nation if it is put into action on completion of standard seven as this would give children the opportunity to learn and master skills at tender age. The history of the Brigades has shown us beyond reasonable doubt that at this young age children have the intellect and capacity to easily learn technical or vocational skills, than to be compelled to toil trying to come to terms with the world of theory based academic subjects. So the time is now for the government to take a bold decision and implement the ETSSP strategy with immediate effect.


*Dr Bulawa is a Lecturer at the University of Botswana, Gaborone  

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