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Examination malpractices in Sierra Leone

18 July 2019 at 02:29 | 3967 views

Examination malpractices in Sierra Leone: What is responsible and what will government do about it?

By Ibrahim P. Sheriff
Communications Specialist
Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education
Freetown, Sierra Leone

The quality of education in Sierra Leone over the past decades has continued to degenerate to the point where the trend seriously undermines the human capacity development of the country’s populace. Key to the degeneration is how much almost every facet of Sierra Leonean society participates in examination malpractices - pupils, students, teachers, examination officers, parents, police, and so on.

At the top of the New Direction administration’s agenda is developing the human capital of Sierra Leoneans through education, skill training, health and protection of the people. In order for those priorities of the government to succeed, the issue of examination malpractices is one major problem that must be tackled with all seriousness and determination.

After traversing the length and breadth of the country as the Communications Specialist of the Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education, and after observing and assessing public examinations in the country including the NPSE, BECE and WASSCE, I came to the conclusion that until key factors that contribute to examination malpractices are eliminated, the problem will continue to linger on, and get more entrenched and sophisticated. Some of those key factors are:

Anti-Patriotic Indoctrination of Pupils towards the Importance of Working Hard to Achieve Education
It is deliberately called Anti-Patriotic because teachers, head teachers and principals, instead of encouraging pupils to work hard, study hard, and read the right materials, they instead indoctrinate them with the notion that they do not need to do all of the above. Rather, all they need is money and their exams can either be written for them, or they (teachers) could craft some way for the pupils to spy and cheat on their examinations. The problem has so gradually eaten into the fabric of the education system over the past decades that pupils now think it is their right to spy and cheat in those exams; and that anyone who stands in their way will be dealt with violently. We are witnesses to that manifestation in the past WASSCE examination where pupils violently attacked education officers and police for not allowing them to spy during the exams. So the sense of patriotic learning for the main objective of moving Sierra Leone forward has been dangerously tampered with. The children, who are the ultimate future leaders of our country have been indoctrinated by their own teachers, head teachers and principals to undermine the quality and relevance of education as key to our human capacity development. In fact, examination malpractices seriously undermine the "Integrity" component of the Free Quality School Education (FQSE).

Commercialization of Public Examinations.
It is an open secret in Sierra Leone that when the time comes for public examinations, all stakeholders involved with either organizing the exams, or preparing pupils for them, think about the process as a time to do business and make money, or paying money and get their ways in the exams. This has been the growing trend, which has been uncovered by the determination of the New Direction government to change the status quo. Pupils lure their parents into paying for exams at a whopping 600,000 Leones (about US$60) per subject. The crime is so organized that teachers, head teachers, principals and officers of the West African Examinations Council (WAEC) have reportedly made and continue to make very serious money out of the practice. Imagine in a case where one pupil pays for a minimum of 5 subjects at 600,000 Leones each. That equals 3 million Leones per child. And imagine if about 100 pupils pay such amount in just one school, the teachers, or head teacher, or principal make up to 150 million Leones. You do the conversion into dollars. So when they look at the commercial value of their criminal practice, they devise sophisticated mechanisms that keep it going unabated. That practice is the direct opposite of the "Quality" and "Integrity" components of the FQSE.

Another factor is the *compromising of Examination Officials
The naked fact is that those who are charged with the responsibility of ensuring that public exams are taken with credibility and integrity are being compromised to do the complete opposite. It is an open secret that WAEC officers no longer command respect, dignity and integrity when it comes to these exams simply because evidential instances have caught them in examination malpractices themselves, or at least allowed leakages in the system. Before the actual exams commence, real-time examination questions are sold online by an organized group of people who have access or connections to those WAEC officers. Now that some measures have been taken to disallow the practice by tagging question bags with coded locks that must only be opened at the exact examination start time, the practice by the other examination officers such as Invigilators, Supervisors and Monitors is that they deliberately decide to delay examination start time by 30 minutes. Within the 30 minutes, the coded locks are opened, and examination questions photocopied, sent to standby groups of people who answer those questions and provide the answers to the pupils who had fulfilled their financial obligations to them. The situation gets even worse when it gets to those who mark the written exams. Most of them become the "Lords" to whom all pupils must bow, sometimes with hefty payment of money to either give them passing grades or allow them to retake the exams. Some have been caught in the act by Ministry of Education officials.

Cooperation of Parents
Many say that if parents are not cooperating with these examination deals with the purposeful intention to commit malpractices, that the malpractice will not take place in the first place. But the willingness of parents to cooperate with this organized crime keeps the crime alive. The parents are the financiers of the entire operation. Indeed we know pupils do not have the capacity to pay the amounts charged by these examination crime groups. It is also clear that if parents do not pay the charged amounts, that those who organize it will be demotivated to continue with the crime. It is also very amazing that parents actually deceive their own children by paying for what their children do not learn. Parents in fact have a very high stake in the crime of examination malpractices in Sierra Leone; and if anyone must undergo punishment for the crime, parents who cooperate with organizers of examination malpractices must be at the forefront of that punishment.

As this grave and nationally embarrassing practice continues in the country unabated, it becomes sophisticated each year. So, according to the Minister of Basic and Senior Secondary Education, Hon. Alpha Osman Timbo, "this, we have to stop if we are to prepare a brighter future for our coming generation." The Minister is living up to what he stated in Mongo Bendugu in Falaba District immediately after the nationwide disgrace of examination malpractice. A lot of planning is ongoing at the Ministry to robustly tackle the problem of examination malpractices - some of which are classified intelligence work that cannot be disclosed now.

It is quite definite that part of the problem is that previous Ministry officials relied on guess work when they made decisions in policy planning that impacted education. We all know where we are now with such ill-advised decision making style. With the New Direction government in power, decisions regarding education policy planning, monitoring and advocacy are now based on real-time in-depth data collection, management and analysis to help understand the problems better so informed decisions are made. In that regard therefore, an education data collection, management and analysis platform called "The Dashboard" is now in it’s final stage to be deployed with the existing Education Management Information System (EMIS). These two platforms are designed to not only help the Ministry to collect, manage and analyze data, but to also force people to do the right thing. The platforms are trackable and auditable and hence all activities inside of such system by any official may be tracked and used for future auditing of the individual who used it, or the information therein. So the bucks start with the Education Ministry itself. This system will eliminate the mistake or error of taking examination candidates off the final list sent to WAEC because critical demographic and biometric features of such candidates will be captured and securely stored. It is a system that will have levels of access capability, etc.

The President and government understand that part of the problem also has to do with teachers trying to make ends meet. When the FQSE was launched a year ago, teachers were undoubtedly hopeful of their conditions of service - especially after 10 years of no improvement of those conditions. The inevitable consequences were substituting regular school hours with syndicate classes which earn them extra money, organizing study camps, asking pupils to pay for homework or to pay for terminal exams grades, etc. These were the ingredients that formed the recipe for examination malpractices, and by extension the undermining of the education system in the country. The New Direction Government says business cannot be as usual. If the FQSE is to succeed, the two-shift system must stop in schools which operated it. There must be no more syndicate classes and that all study camps must be abolished on school campuses. These measures are meant to refocus schools back on teaching the right materials using the government-prescribed school curriculum, syllabus and lesson plans. The government, through the Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education is working round the clock to improve on the conditions of service for teachers.

So far, the Teaching Service Commission (TSC) has approved about 1,400 teachers, re-assessed about 1,901 teachers, and now recruiting another 3,400 more. The New Direction government understood too well that teachers all over the country are frustrated with the pace at which their issues are being handled - especially those who had gone back to college and upgraded their training but who are still being under-paid. The government also understands how much the teachers are relevant in achieving the quality component of the FQSE. The government understands that a happy teacher is motivated and inspired to teach the right materials and engage the pupils even better. It is the acknowledgement of these significant roles that teachers play in the development of the human capital development of Sierra Leoneans that the government is taking its time to work on conditions of service for teachers that are commensurate with their training and experience. Because government places value on the role of teachers, the President, His Excellency Retired Brigadier-General Julius Maada Bio will be launching a Best Teacher Award pretty soon.

In conclusion therefore, the endemic problem of examination malpractices in Sierra Leone has been around for too long, and escalated in the past 10 years. It is almost like something abnormal has become normal with all facets of society participating in the unfortunate and embarrassing practice. The real problem that comes with this unfortunate national problem is the potential drop in the value of academic qualifications from Sierra Leone. It also seriously undermines the President’s agenda for human capacity development as Sierra Leoneans may graduate from educational institutions without learning anything. At the end, such people are placed in critical decision making positions that impact the country for many years. It is a national disgrace in the international community where technology and social media have taken over our world. There are no more secrets. The Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education is however poised to surmount the problems.