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External examinations only push more students out

PRADEEP LAL
Tuesday, January 23, 2007

External examinations have played a major role in Fiji's education system for a long time continues to do so.

Many believe that external examinations are the best way to measure a child's performance.

They believe that examinations are the best indicators of measuring the progress of a child.

There are many questions and doubts raised about the way external examination papers are prepared, the type of questions, the relevance of questions, the marking system and even the markers credibility and reliability. External examinations have contributed to failures who are pushed out of the school system along the way, contributing to rising unemployment.

Additionally, the education system is responsible for the brain drain that is costly to small island states.

What do examinations really measure?

In just as little as two or three hours, an examination is supposed to measure a child's year or two years of work!

This is a highly unfair system to gauge the abilities and performance of a child. It neither helps a child nor the nation in the long term. The form of external examination is responsible for the high drop-out rate.

An examination is generally nothing but a recall of events, names, dates, stories, formulas, places, people etc. Those who have a better memory to recall are fortunate.

They get through examinations with pretty good results. Tertiary institute's intake number and criteria is fixed, allowing only those who have certain marks to enter. This further puts those with low marks in more difficult situation. The system is allowing children to engage in rote learning. Teachers in schools are allowing this to occur. They know that without the child cramming the formulas, names, places etc, the child will not pass.

Professional Educators in the 2000 Education Commission Report have raised similar views on rote learning that is excessively focussed on memorised knowledge.

They have mentioned that "there seems to be no doubt that rote learning is over-emphasised in many subjects and parts of subjects offered at all levels in the education system.

Rote learning means learners commit things to memory so thoroughly that they can recall facts almost instantly when given the right stimulus, regardless of whether they understand them, or can process, apply or extend them. They have further stated that the examination system has a profound influence on how teachers teach, how students learn and what they learn.

The examination system may encourage rote learning to the detriment of a deeper understanding of subject material and the development of intellectual skills for processing and manipulating that material. When this occurs, students leave with seriously underdeveloped abilities to reason, to challenge, to extend, to apply and to transfer knowledge to new contexts. The examination system in Fiji has placed a lot of stress on children, teachers and parents alike.

The rush to complete syllabus, prepare exams, tests, analysis and determine position of each child in relation to others is nothing new in schools.

The positions in examinations tag some students as the academically poor students (or hopeless as commonly called by some teachers) because they have not been able to memorise the information and reproduce it in time.

These children may be far more talented and intelligent in other important areas than those who have passed.

Some of the areas I am referring to are caring for others, being honest, humble and kind, love for their neighbours and their nation, healthy living, growing, preserving and serving food, weaving, fishing, taking care of the environment and the list goes on.

These are far more important aspects of living in Fiji than passing examinations. Unfortunately, examinations cannot assess such aspects.

Clearly, there's a need to shift away from examination. It is increasingly necessary given the number of social problems, the rising crime and unemployment in the country.

Much of the problem gripping this nation can be taken care of if the nation has a better and an improved education system.

I am not saying that examination is totally bad. Some aspects of examination need to be re-looked at. The change that the Ministry of Education has introduced successfully at Form Three level in secondary schools is a step in the right direction. It involves internal assessment work that measures and assesses many aspects of performance and skills of children, which examinations have badly failed to measure. However, in some areas, improvements and adjustments need to be made to make it practical.

Copying during examination.

There are two external examinations at primary level: The intermediate examination and the Fiji Eighth Year Examination (both are optional but schools still opt for examinations, sometimes because of pressure from parents and teachers).

High schools conduct FJC (Form Four), FSLC (Form Six) and FSFE (Form Seven). The resolve to pass examinations some times forces students to find other means to succeed.

It is some times heard that children who sit for examinations, more so at primary level, either made some attempt to copy, assisted some students in copying or clearly copied from someone.

Some times it is heard that they were allowed to discuss and copy during examination!

This phenomenon is prevalent in most places. It is not a new thing. It has been happening and may even continue to happen as long as there are unethical leaders, teachers and supervisors around.

The teachers unions need to remind teachers and leaders to exercise caution on this matter.

The Fiji Teachers Union espouses "child our hope", therefore, it must focus on the total development of a child. Leadership in schools from primary level is crucial in developing authentic and worthwhile citizens. So when these students who are allowed to copy and pass, move on to the secondary school, they are hardly able to get their primary level answers correct despite scoring marks over 70 or 80 in each subject!

Here, I am not implying that copying is going on in all schools, neither am I suggesting that all teachers and supervisors are encouraging copying. There are however, some schools where children, teachers and even supervisors may know that it is happening.

It may be going on in a rather subtle manner it may be taken as a normal thing despite knowing that it is morally and ethically wrong. Indeed it is wrong in every aspect. Some times it is heard that schools deny the academically weak children the right to sit for examinations in order to achieve a 100 per cent pass for the school.

The Ministry of Education must ensure that supervisors are well trained and are educated people who hold fairness and justice dear to their hearts.

Cheating is against all religious values and this is what must be infused in children if we want to get rid of corruption, nepotism, favouritism, dishonest and unethical dealings and the like from the country.

Examinations have allowed children to engage in corrupt dealings. Leakage of external examination papers is nothing new. Some children go to the extent of obtaining exam papers in exchange for money. They then sell it at a higher cost to friends to help them to pass and to make profit! They are learning to conduct business but this business is rather absurd.

Is this the kind of future leaders the nation is grooming? The religious and cultural values taught at home and in schools come into question here.

Schools that encourage children to cheat are in fact responsible for spoiling their future as many who move to higher levels are not able to perform well among those who have passed without cheating. Consequently, they drop out or are pushed out at higher levels.

Examinations produce failures

Almost half of the students who sit for external examinations at higher levels fail.

The pass rates in FSLC between 1997 and 1999 were less than 55 per cent. What about the other half of the students? Where do they end up?

Understandably, there is so far no study done to find out where those who have failed end up.

While I am talking about the pass rates, there is a wide disparity in the pass rates of rural and urban schools as well.

In the 1997-1999 period, the rural school pass rate was below 50 per cent (though it is showing a growth) while the urban school pass rate was above 50 per cent (refer to Table One below).

This is due to the belief that urban schools offer better education. Some times, special tutorial sessions are arranged for the students in order to help them pass. They get help from teachers as well as from the CDU staff to guide the students. The involvement of CDU staff puts urban students at a far greater advantage than rural and outer island students.

This is the result of examination pressure which drives children, teachers and the community into getting external support.

Parents want their children to have access to better facilities in urban schools.

Rural schools are generally left with average and, some times, below average students to deal with.

Table 1. FSLC per cent pass rates 1997-1999.

Year Urban Rural Total Percentage Pass.

1997 63.4% 23.9% 49.9%

1998 62.4% 26.3% 50.14%

1999 58.2% 45.8% 54.4%

Source: Ministry of Education.

Additionally, the number of children who move from one level to the next in high schools in Fiji indicates a marked decline.

This is clearly because of the exam-driven curriculum that involves memorising and regurgitating knowledge. Many are not able to go through this drill.

They develop a low self-esteem and eventually drop out of school. The number will continue to decline if no adjustment is made to the education system.

State spending on uplifting rural and outer island education in terms of resources and quality teachers should be the key focus irrespective of ethnicity of schools. In fact, the focus must be on all poor schools. The announcement by the Interim Education Minister to uplift rural education is a welcome sign.

Unemployment and brain drain

The official school leaving age in Fiji is 15 years. This places children in a vulnerable situation. They are not able to get a decent employment at this age nor are able to negotiate and bargain.

Some may find work but soon leave because of abuse or the little pay they get. At 15 years of age, a child can neither attain a worthwhile qualification nor acquire a decent job in Fiji.

It does not adequately prepare a child to face life-long challenges. Those who fail examinations find it extremely difficult to get further education or a job that will enable them to support themselves and their families.

The high unemployment rate in Fiji today is as a result of the type of education and the assessment system in place highly unrealistic for the local job market.

However, it is very much applicable to the international job market such as Australia and New Zealand. Today, many ask the question education for what? The answer is simple education for migration.

The education system in Fiji is preparing our labour force for jobs in other countries.

The qualifications obtained from tertiary institutes such as USP, FIT, TPAF, FSM, and FSN are contributing to the loss of most of its graduates overseas, all at the state's expense.

One only has to look at the fees charged by TPAF for providing training. Majority of those undertaking TPAF courses are doing so only to migrate. The TPAF knows this and, hence, the high fees. If the TPAF is serious about improving local skills, it must reduce its fees. It must focus more attention on skills that are in demand in Fiji.

To make matters worse, the Australian PM in 2006 announced the setting up of the Australia-Pacific Technical College (APTC) in Fiji. This is going to be much like a modern and legalised version of 'black birding' as some academics have labelled it.

It is going to do more harm to small island states than good in the long term but the Australian PM, will say it is another way of helping Pacific Island nations.

I say that in a way, it is bullying the Pacific Island nations.

Perhaps, strengthening the already existing technical institutes in the Pacific and helping the set-up of local technical institutes and colleges out of the central locations would have been a better option by our rich neighbour. The brain drain will be swifter than ever, which will be detrimental to Fiji in the medium and long-term.

While remittance is good for a nation, it is still not good enough to take a country out of the socio-economic ills.

Professor Brij Lal's study (Fiji Islands: From Immigration to Emigration) reveals that the cost of emigration runs into millions.

The study revealed that Fiji is estimated to lose, on average $F44.5million annually, mainly through loss of skill, re-training new appointees and delayed appointments. He points out that the figure is much higher $F274.7m if account is taken of the loss if the emigrant's work is not carried out by a replacement.

Certainly this figure is not small that it can be easily ignored by policy makers. Heavy reliance on remittance will create dependency and create a cohort of lazy people who will not want to work on the land.

Examination result joy for some, uncertainty for others and sorrow for a few families

Every candidate awaits examination result with excitement and eagerness. Not so for those who know that they have not done well. Poor results have led to uncertain future for those who have just passed with a few marks.

There are absolutely no scholarship chances for them. Many are too poor to attend tertiary institutes privately.

A few who have failed do the dreadful thing which requires no mentioning. Those who have passed and attained certificates and diplomas may not have necessarily developed creativity, imagination and other fine attributes of life.

Those who fail examination may ask what about the talents and qualities that I possess and which were not tested through examination?

We can only contemplate today as to how much of the hidden talents of those who have failed in examination have not been explored, measured and tapped.

In fact, it is the education system which has failed to tap on those talents that could have brought prosperity to those children and the nation. How much more of it is going to remain untapped and unexplored?

The way forward.

Clearly, Fiji's curriculum needs changes and modifications. Equally important is the need to improve teacher training. It is widely agreed that the curriculum is academic and prescriptive in nature.

It is not reflective. Much of the knowledge acquired is regularly tested through competitive examinations.

Much emphasis is placed on acquisition and reproduction of knowledge, which is largely not applicable in the Fiji society once a child leaves school.

In order to pass, students are drilled to learn by cramming materials that are mostly untested, unproven, unrealistic and sometimes useless.

School based assessment is an alternative to replace the current examination system. Perhaps for the start, 50 per cent of student work could be assessed internally at school level and part of it monitored externally.

The other 50 per cent of work can be taken care of through a better form of examination at forms 4, 6 and 7 levels.

However, for school-based assessment to be effective, teachers and curriculum development officers need to be highly trained. (The qualification of some of the CDU officers, rather sadly, is the same or perhaps lower than those of the teachers in high schools).

Higher qualification will bring better innovation and a new level of expertise. In this way, teachers will be able to impartially assess those aspects of work that examinations cannot assess.

This system must be used at forms 5, 6 and 7 levels gradually. Multi-level planning concept is necessary today. The change process is not easy, nor is it impossible.

For authentic learning to take place, knowledge and experience must be internalised.

Moreover, the curriculum must be made more realistic and applicable to the real needs of our nation. Skills-based training must be introduced in schools as well. These are skills and training in carpentry, joinery, metal work, fishing, mechanical work, information technology, history, language, music, local culture, environment, tourism and resource management, engineering, plumbing, commerce, home science, sports education and water safety, agriculture (including aquaculture, ornamental horticulture, floriculture) etc.

This does not totally remove the scientific, literacy and numeral study from each area of the skill-based study. (This proposal on skill-based training and education is an extension to the technical and vocational education training program model proposed by Professor Akhila Nand Sharma). It is broad-based at primary level and becomes more specialised at secondary and tertiary level where a child takes up specialised education and training that will provide him/her with employment in public or private sector or enable self employment easily.

The Lautoka Teachers College, which provides two-year training to primary school teachers needs to be replaced with a higher and superior qualification such as the USP's Bachelor of Education Primary program if quality education is to be achieved at primary level.

Educationists agree that the effectiveness of teaching is closely related to the quality of teacher education received.

With a degree, primary school teachers will have better background and understanding of education, its processes and will be able to adjust to changes quickly.

Evelyn Coxon, the educationist, states in the 2000 Education report that "no education system can rely on the initial training teachers had in teachers' colleges, especially when it was a long time ago".

There are many teachers and administrators in primary as well as in secondary schools who are basically sitting with the same certificate, diploma or degree which they did some 15 or 20 years ago!

This is perhaps one reason why the idea of quality education is not understood, not espoused and consequently not achieved in Fiji schools today.

Most of these teachers resent changes as they are worker-type teachers who do not want to do anything extra.

Fiji's education system deals with a small population. Improvements to the education system are therefore not difficult.

Today, there continues to be drop-outs or "push outs" from the education system largely because of the examination system. A range of change (from quality education and training, curriculum to assessment and management) needs to take place if education is to be made worthwhile, realistic and authentic.

This call for change is nothing new. It has been suggested by academics and learned educationists much earlier. It is important to make progress now in this direction through realistic changes to avoid national problems in the future.

Pradeep C Lal is a teacher with Waiqele Secondary School, Labasa


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