The spotlight has been on the declining performance of students in Botswana, raising concerns over whether the educational system is failing most learners.
Poor academic excellence translates into less chances of further education, and in turn a less skilled workforce and high unemployment rate. With the recently released Junior Secondary results, it’s obvious that performance is continuously declining. Last year the learners’ credit pass across the country stood at 67.8 percent the previous year it was 30.9 percent. The 2013 results have proven dismal results, with not even a Merit. Of the 38 944 students who sat for the examinations, 325 got A, compared to 590 last year. A total of 3788 got B, compared to 4745 last year while 9626 got C, compared to 10 386 last year. A shocking 412 students were allocated an X because they didn’t qualify for a grade.
Due to the low grades in recent years, last year government was forced to admit even learners who had acquired Grade D, as there were few A, B, C graded students to fill the available spaces. Ten years of education from primary lead to the Junior Certificate (JC) which qualifies students to progress to senior secondary, where they will sit for the BGCSE examinations. According to the government website, by 2016 Botswana will have a system of quality education that is able to adapt to the ever changing needs of the global workforce market. Some local schools lack resources like computers and libraries, which can make the learning process easier. Furthermore, teachers have complained of being underpaid, as alluded to during the civil service strike of 2011, which saw scores of teachers downing tools.
However, the challenge of declining educational performance isn’t unique to Botswana. Several countries around the world have over the years battled challenges that affect the output and quality of their educational systems. An international research conducted by Elizabeth Henning, director of the Centre for Education Practice Research at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa, shows that the Finnish educational system is the best globally. She notes that Quantitive gains are not always matched by qualitative ones. For the past decade, Finland has boasted one of the world’s best school systems but is now being overtaken by countries like Korea and Shanghai China, which interestingly, have also adopted the Finnish school system. Henning is part of a team that is applying a test project of the Finnish school system in Soweto, a first of its kind in Africa. So what are the pointers that Henning believes African governments could implement to holistically improve our educational system?
Firstly, Henning believes educators must be researchers. “Teaching means you have to constantly evaluate or research the school system, learning material and the child and the outcome,” reads part of her research. “Instead of following a syllabus all the time, teachers must consider whether the methods they are using benefit learners in the best possible way. Sometimes teachers move on before every learner understands a certain subject, because the foundation phase of the curriculum is long and crammed. She also believes that teachers must be better trained. In Finland for example, teachers have a master’s degree in education – they study for five whole years. In Botswana, a teaching qualification is a diploma which takes two or three years, or a university degree which is a four year course. Individuals who didn’t study education but other humanities related courses also qualify to teach in Botswana. “It’s difficult to study post-graduate part-time while you are working and that’s why few teachers end up as researchers,” she points out. The Finnish perceive teaching as a status symbol. There, a teaching degree is more prestigious than say, a medical degree.
The selection criteria for teaching are also as strict as in other fields like medicine and engineering, for example. In Botswana, the highest requirement for student teachers is a minimum 60 percent pass in English and about only 50 percent for other subjects. This means that we don’t attract the best learners to be potential teachers. In Botswana, it’s traditional for those whose senior secondary examinations results weren’t too good to study foundation-phase teaching, but that’s the most critical phase in a student’s learning life which may impact negatively on some learners in the long-run because they don’t have the best teachers to mould them at foundation level.
Countries which show excellent educational results have been shown to value education. Professor Henning claims she asked several Finnish what the most important value to their country is and most of them pointed out to the education. “To make education a national value, you need leaders to offer hope or a system with a symbolic leader. Learners need to realise that indeed education enhances the quality of their lives and the scope of their reality and choices to progress and succeed.”
Teachers also need practical training. All Finnish universities that train teachers have their own schools where student teachers gain practical experience before they qualify. Every student is mentored by a teacher. Professor Henning also emphasises that contrary to popular perception, young children can’t efficiently work successfully in groups. “It’s only in the fourth year of primary where they should do so. It’s important for children to get individual attention to make sure that they understand what they are doing. Children should mostly work alone. It gives them time to think clearly and consolidate what they know without interference and interruptions.” Finnish schools generally have about 20 children to a class. Most schools in Botswana, especially government schools, have no fewer than 35 learners in a class, to a single teacher. While it’s often thought that a longer day means more productivity and improved learning, Henning’s research points this as flawed. For example, the Finnish school day is short – about five hours.
It’s divided into 45 minute periods and separated by ten minute breaks. Botswana’s nine hour school day only has two breaks. Botswana’s school year lasts ten months; Finland’s school year is just eight months. Despite this, the quality of education there is superior across the country. Henning explains that the focus is on quality and not the amount of time spent in a class. “The Finnish believe that children have to play, learners have to unwind in the afternoon to prepare for classes and go over their schoolwork.” Lastly, good teaching also seems to make a difference. “Some learners fail not because they are unintelligent, but because of what happens in the classroom. The curriculum is too crammed and teachers have to work through it too fast and the classes are too big.” Other factors which are said to affect the results and performance of learners include their intelligence quotient, home conditions, negative peer relations, home economic status, their confidence and level of aspirations. Emotional strain and mental distractions have also shown to affect learners’; therefore it’s important to approach learning holistically, to ensure that learners are in a position to make the most of their education.