By Levi Obijiofor
Mass failure in secondary school examinations and widespread cheating by students in examinations conducted by the West African Examinations Council (WAEC) have become a regular feature in the academic calendar of higher education institutions. The situation is not getting better. The outcomes of the November/December 2014 West African Senior School Certificate Examination (WASSCE) released last week are profoundly depressing.
This year’s WASSCE results were very bad indeed, even though a senior WAEC official believes the results represented an improvement in previous years’ record. In an examination in which more than 70 per cent of students failed, it is difficult to accept the view that the results should be interpreted as an improvement. If it were so, the previous years’ results must be described as outrageous and disgraceful.
Consider the figures released by WAEC last week. Of the more than 246,850 students who took the examination, only 72,522 students (or 29.37 per cent) received credits in five subjects, including English Language and Mathematics. Despite this shocking performance, WAEC’s chief of the Nigerian national office, Charles Eguridu, argued that even though less than one-third of the students who sat for this year’s examinations received five credits, the abysmal results still represented an improvement on previous years. For example, according to Eguridu, in 2013, only 26.97 per cent of students (or 80,135 students) received five credits, including English Language and Mathematics.
In regard to examination malpractices, Eguridu said the results of 28,817 students in the 2014 examinations were withheld. In 2013, a total of 38,260 students had their results withheld for misconduct.
The results raise a number of disquieting questions such as: What are they teaching students in secondary schools? This question touches on the curriculum contents of secondary education. Other questions include: What is the level of student commitment to academic studies and knowledge acquisition? Do students still see value in hard work and in achieving excellence in academic studies? What are parents and guardians teaching their children and dependants?
Poor performance by students suggests they are being distracted by many delights of the digital era, including involvement in criminal activities driven by new technologies. The environment also affects students’ performance. When students look around and realise they have no future in an environment in which they are surrounded by hopelessness, they wonder how they could survive. Gradually they start to look up to crime as the way out of their social and economic deprivation, particularly when they fail to identify good role models they can emulate, or viable opportunities for survival.
One of the challenges that confront our society is how to revive our crumbling secondary education. It is a very difficult task. Students can be fundamentally as good or as bad as the quality of upbringing they receive at homes and in their schools. When students are regularly exposed to corrupt practices and other reprehensible types of conduct, they will try to imitate what they see on a daily basis.
In March 2011, the Federal Government said it would unveil a new senior secondary school curriculum that would take effect from September that year. The new curriculum was touted as the government’s answer to low standard of education at the secondary school level. Questions were raised at the time about what the curriculum was designed to achieve and the usefulness of introducing a new curriculum when the prevailing curriculum had not been implemented. At that time, the government said one objective of the new curriculum was to produce secondary school graduates who would be sufficiently prepared and trained for university and polytechnic education. That curriculum is yet to achieve results. Mass failure in the West African School Certificate Examinations is a troubling feature of secondary school education in Nigeria. There are diverse ways to explain the shocking results.
It could be that secondary school teachers are incompetent, inexperienced, and are not teaching students topics that are covered in the examinations. It could also be that students are not motivated to learn.
The problem could also lie with the education system in the country, particularly with the visible absence of facilities that could be used to promote quality teaching and learning in schools. It could be that a large number of students do not prepare adequately for their senior school examinations.
If students are brought up on the belief that hard work is useless, they will explore available short cuts to succeed in their academic studies. If students grow up with the assumption that people who succeed in life are those who engage in sharp practices and other fraudulent behaviour, we have no right to expect them to excel in WASSC examinations or to refrain from involvement in examination malpractices.
We must not overlook the impact of government neglect of secondary education in general. For many years, secondary education was abandoned by state education departments. Added to that must be rampant indiscipline among secondary school teachers and students. We must not discount the impact of the lack of moral uprightness by students on their overall performance in WASSC examinations. Similarly, we must include the adoption, by unmotivated teachers, of surface and uncritical approaches to teaching that encourage students to engage in rote learning rather than deep learning practices.
There is also the erratic review of secondary education curriculum, a programme of study that fails to mirror the 21st century realities of higher education. Add to this the decrepit state of equipment in secondary schools, such as rat-infested science laboratories that look more like historical museums.
Our secondary school system is dying fast. The tragedy is no one seems to worry. This is why Federal and State ministries of education have paid little attention to the crisis in that sector. State governments in particular have shamelessly relinquished their responsibilities to finance, administer, and provide all necessary facilities to sustain quality secondary education. The message really is that if you want quality education in public secondary schools, you must be prepared to pay for it. That, again, is the tragedy of the government abdicating its responsibilities to the citizens.
Part of the reason why private schools are booming in Nigeria is because public secondary schools have been abandoned by state governments. Although private schools charge exorbitant fees, some parents pay the fees nevertheless just so their children can receive good education. Sadly, many parents cannot afford to pay excessive fees for the education of their children. This is the more reason why state governments must finance and revive secondary education. It would be interesting to compare the performance of students who attended public secondary schools with those of students who studied in private schools. The result will be undisputed. It will expose the inadequacies of public secondary schools in Nigeria.
Every child has the fundamental right to be educated, at least up to the secondary school level. That obligation rests substantially with state governments. If governments abandon their responsibility to ensure that every school age child attends school, parents will be compelled to fork out money for school fees, even if grudgingly.
In many countries that I have visited, it is the primary duty of government to finance primary and secondary education. Quality education is the key word here. There is no point providing ramshackle structures that are not fit to serve as classrooms. There is no point in establishing schools that lack basic amenities, including qualified teachers.
Consistently poor performance by students in examinations conducted by WAEC suggests a downward slide in secondary education across the country. Why is it that state education ministries have remained unflustered despite consistently pathetic academic performance by secondary school students? That nonchalant attitude has exposed the culture of neglect that has enfeebled secondary education in Nigeria. State governors and politicians are busy plotting how they will triumph in next year’s general elections. For that reason, they cannot discuss or address questions about poor quality of education at the secondary school level. Those questions have been consigned to the “too hard basket”.
There must be something in our culture that rewards laziness and sharp practices by youth. Our social values have been discarded and in their place we have adopted Western cultural values that do not fit our social norms and cultural practices. Above all, important institutions of society that contribute to shaping the moral character of everyone have collapsed.
Levi Obijiofor is a Public Affairs Analyst.