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Examination Camps and the instant success crap

By Isaac Massaquoi

I was listening to Culture Radio about a week ago, as I do every morning, when my attention was drawn to a rather bizarre story about anincident at a high school in the Freetown Peninsular.

The strength of Culture Radio’s Morning Ride program is that they do extensive coverage on events in the Western Rural areas of Freetown which, for many people in the capital is only about the acquisition of prime lands for estate development and tourism.

Large sections of the media treat rural Freetown in much the same way. So it’s always refreshing to hear Culture Radio open up the place, basically saying there is more taking place here than tourism and land grabbing. They have huge technical problems like many other radio stations in this country but they are doing well.

Now back to what I described as a bizarre incident in the beginning. I have to admit from the outset that I have only one side of the story – the parent's side. But from investigations I have done, what the parent said on radio that morning is substantially true.

According to the man, the head of a private school in the peninsular area asked all the students to pay Le 50,000 and to join in fasting and prayer so that the school's candidates for public exams would pass with flying colours. He said he refused to pay the money and asked his child to tell the head teacher that her father was against her participation in such compulsory payment and fasting. The man said for that reason his daughter was now facing marginalisation and harassment from the school authorities causing her to be unhappy and distracted.

The latest I've heard on this issue is that attempts are now being made to "resolve the issue amicably". When Sierra Leoneans talk about "resolving issues amicably", they simply mean sweeping issues under the carpet and moving on. As is always the case in such situations grievances are merely buried in shallow graves waiting to spring to the surface as soon as another opportunity presents itself.

Certain things are happening in the school system in Sierra Leone that I think we should be making a big noise about but somehow we are settling in snugly refusing to rock the boat because we are able to find our way through the maze, sometimes by very foul means.

Let's take a good look at the so-called Examination Camps that almost all schools now organise for candidates preparing for public exams. These camps are like some of our boisterous new Pentecostal churches that promise paradise on earth. The camp organisers tell parents that with them success at public exams is guaranteed. Even 11-year old NPSE candidates are put through this camp experience. The camps cost a lot of money and because adequate supervision is normally not guaranteed even with the normal school, children are exposed to all sorts of dangers including rape. A few such cases were recently reported in newspapers.

The much talked-about Gbamanja Commission called for a halt to the extra-class phenomenon that took hold in our schools starting in the mid 80s. The classes were conducted on school premises using the same teachers. With time, being a part of such extra-classes became the most sensible thing to do if you were a student looking to do well in both school and public exams. When the Commission recommended that such classes be scrapped, they put their fingers right on the pulse of the nation. I wouldn't say that for some of their other recommendations though.

The most powerful argument against such extra-classes is that if teachers did their work well in class during normal school hours, extra-classes would be totally unnecessary. It's even been suggested in Freetown that the "most important" parts of a particular subject is taught in those extra lessons. And crucially, some teachers teach normal classes under the assumption that all pupils in the normal school hours are also members of the extra classes.

I cannot confirm this but it's rumoured that tests are sometimes done during extra-classes. The compulsory purchase of pamphlets is part of the deal.

The point is this: the Gbamanja Commission's recommendation merely drove the project out of the school buildings into private homes and so-called Examination Camps.

I know of one case in which a teacher selected ten candidates from a class of about 45 and kept them home for two weeks, at their own expense. He told them they were the best hopes for the school in the BECE exams. It's very clear then that the teacher completely excluded the other 35 students and condemned them to failure even before they took the exams. He may have assessed their chances but how more discriminatory can one get.

These days parents put their children under so much pressure to succeed that, as a colleague would say, normal childhood is made to disappear.

We live in a world of immediacy and by means of technology we can get things as quickly as we desire – like ordering a pizza on the internet and a smiling delivery man turning up at the door after 15 minutes with the food.

We can also create our own reality. For example, if a child is a supporter of Real Madrid football club in Spain and he doesn't like the way Lionel Messi of the rival club Barcelona dribbles defenders and the general run-away success of the club, he could go on a Japanese Play Station and create his own reality in which Ronaldo scores all the goals and Real Madrid wins all trophies at home and abroad. Such facilities are available in our backyards.

Take the example of Brazil where footballers are trained specifically to be sold to European clubs. Watch carefully, you will notice that there are very few rounded players coming to Europe these days, in other words players who could do many things on the field like tackling in midfield, dealing with set pieces, scoring goals and even standing between the posts when it becomes necessary. A player like Hulk is trained only to force his way past defenders using his strength to score goals. He has no flair.

Now, apply this business of immediacy – instant success and the narrow way in which students are prepared for public exams these days through extra-classes and examination camps, you are bound to ask the question, what kind of society are we building. The pressure is just unbelievable.

The whole nonsense becomes even more ridiculous when NPSE pupils go to examination centres as happened a few weeks ago. Some are accompanied by whole families who sit outside the hall for the duration of the exam putting pressure on the young minds inside. So the children have their papers to worry about and also their parents outside waiting to pass instant judgement on them once the exams are over. It's truly ridiculous!

Students in the school-leaving WASSCE class are in a league of their own. Once they finish the exams, they start hunting for examiners for particularly English Language and Mathematics. And with WAEC paying such examiners criminal wages, one can only imagine what happens between the students and such an examiner when they eventually find him.

Let's go back to the beginning. We met a school proprietor who is so consumed by the desire for all her pupils to pass public exams with fantastic grades and increase the popularity of her school and so gets more parents to turn up asking for admission, that she asks all the children to pay some money and then join in some collective fasting and prayer to bring glory to the school.

Then there are those teachers who are constantly looking for ways to make the extra penny, Gbamanja Commission or not. There's nothing wrong with people making money from their expertise but sometimes the line between that and cheating the system that pays the rent is almost non-existent.

Finally we move on to this brave new world where procedures and processes in the real world are far too slow for the kind of immediacy we crave. What we can't achieve in the real world because we can't wait to follow the correct procedure, we can look for and get in real time from the virtual world. It's in that world that many belong. That world talks about instant success at all cost.

I think it's time to step back a bit and stop this unnecessary grandstanding in the education system and ask the right questions. Let's ask the right questions and demand and get the honest answers. It's not an easy thing to do in a wickedly politicised society like this but only we can do it.

(C) Politico 09/07/13