Education: Challenges and Opportunities

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By Elizabeth M. Amukugo, PhD – Ed. 1. The Bigger Picture The month of January qualifies to be baptized as “the Namibian Education month”. It is during this time of year when many become experts on education, as the reality of problems in education affects all and sundry through weak secondary school examination results and the annual scarcity of space in schools countrywide. It was for example interesting to listen to a desperate call on NBC Radio’s National Chat Show, from a citizen who went as far as to suggest that both the constitutional provision on education and the current education policies are completely wrong; and that we need to go back to the drawing board. The diverse views on how to contain the ever-persistent educational moot point notwithstanding, the lasting solution are best effected by the broader education leadership (The Ministry, School Inspectorate, School Management, Subject Advisors and the newly established National Advisory Council on Education). I am one of those who contend that: “You may have as many clever implementers as you want, if visionary leadership is lacking, forget about major returns.” It is beyond comprehension that the Education Ministry has a Directorate of Planning and Development, which produces “Educational Statistics” booklets annually. Information that has been very useful to those of us involved in research. One cannot understand why that statistical information combined with population growth projections by the National Planning Commission, could not be used to plan ahead; and prevent for example the disastrous yearly shortage of space in schools. It goes without saying, therefore, that the onus is, in the first instance, on the various layers of educational leaderships to shape up or ship out. We can all not be in charge. At the same time, education does not function in a vacuum but operates within a specific socio-economic context. It is in this respect that issues such as availability of resources (financial, human and material) come in. For the system to take a more focused direction, however, programmes and their implementation need to be guided by research. There is no doubt that the Namibian Government inherited a colonial education system that was badly lacking. Government’s option to introduce an alternative education system based on a learner-centred approach that emphasizes critical thinking and education for life was in itself not a wrong decision. But like with many other sound policies in this country, education got stuck during the implementation process for various reasons. As an individual who went through the Cambridge system (O level/A level), not IGCSE/HIGCSE), through Aga Khan Academy in Nairobi, I have high regard for this sytem. Lessons from Zimbabwe and South Africa The O level/A level Cambridge examination system is said to have contributed its fair share to education success in independent Zimbabwe, where 70% of blacks were either illiterate or semi-illiterate at independence (Amukugo, 1993). The Zimbabwean Government then declared that “a greater part of the expansion of secondary education will of necessity be in private secondary schools which Government will continue to support” (In: ibid). As part of this move, government advocated a 60% enrolment of black children in these schools (In: ibid). These efforts, along with huge spending on the education sector, and a comprehensive teacher training programme through ZINTEC, have provided Zimbabwe with both quality and quantity in education. Today, Zimbabwe has more qualified teachers than they need. But, Zimbabwe is historically somewhat different from Namibia. Our comrades in South Africa, with whom we share a historic past, may teach us a lesson or two. They seem not to have thrown the Cape system out of the window in 1994. To the contrary, they opted for gradual transformation, through amongst others the “Curriculum 2005” undertaking. Today, Namibia’s elite prefer to send their children and youth to South Africa, in search of quality education. One must of course guard against blanket comparisons, since South Africa is blessed with more resources, financial and human, which put her at a much higher advantage than Namibia. What is important to note here is the fact that both Zimbabwe and South Africa opted for gradual transformation rather than the ‘change here and now’ approach followed by Namibia in the area of education. This is a contradiction since Independent Namibia had followed a more social democratic evolutionist reform strategy through an introduction of gradual reforms at the socio-economic level. 2. Where did we go wrong? There are several issues that have contributed to the educational mess we find ourselves in. Some of these problems have a historic origin. Others are a result of poor planning, wrong prioritisation and lack of adequate resources. It is hence in order to take a look at some of the more important aspects. Teacher quality: As it has been rightly pointed out in “Towards Education For All (1993)”, “The quality, efficiency and effectiveness of our schools will depend to a large extent on the nature and success of our teacher education programme. … In 1992, more than half of our teachers have not attained the credentials required for their positions”. It hence beats any educator’s logic, that Government would opt to introduce the IGCSE/HIGCSE Cambridge system in 1993, without first ensuring that teachers, on whom success of any education system depend, were adequately prepared for the new task. In fact, Vision 2030, which was published as late as 2004, suggests that still, “…only 49.6% of the teachers in service are well-qualified”. How can this be possible, 14 years after independence? It would have also been necessary to render certain that a good number of professional inspectors and advisers were available to provide the necessary support to especially teachers. I therefore argue, like I’ve done on numerous occasions, that the sudden change from the Cape Education Department Matriculation system to the IGCSE/HIGCSE Cambridge system, was based on political considerations without a thorough reflection on educational consequences. Given the socio-economic situation at the time, gradual change to a new educational system might have produced better results. Resources: In addition to human resources, the aspect of financial resources is crucial. The Presidential Commission on Education, Culture and Training (2001) propounded that “any fruitful discussion of Namibia’s education system can only take place within a resource framework. There is little point in putting together a wish-list which cannot be fulfilled because resources are not available.” Namibia has made history by being one of the few countries in Africa that spends a high portion of the national budget on education. The problem lies in the fact that, for many years the major portion (more than 80%) has been spent on salaries and administration. Besides, research has shown that capital expenditure on education has only been between 2-3 percent since 1991. This means that the amount spent on building classrooms, purchasing books and providing other materials and equipment has been inadequate. Yet these are amongst the more important factors that contribute to the creation of a conducive learning environment within which teachers and learners can be effective and productive. On my part I would argue that, given financial constraints, the question of prioritisation becomes imminent, not only in relation to the Education Ministry’s budget, but also within the context of overall government spending. The level of teacher/pupil ratio is another important aspect. With overcrowding being a problem in many schools in the six northern regions, the issue of equity becomes meaningless. Referring to regional inequalities, the Presidential Commission on Education and Culture (2001) concluded for example that: “… very many children are getting an education which is greatly inferior to that enjoyed by town dwellers and which does not give every Namibian child an equal opportunity of achieving the best of which he or she is capable. It is clear that the root cause of this deprivation is the unequal distribution of the educational resources [in the broader sense of the term].” Automatic promotion: Besides the above factors, the role played by the “automatic promotion practice” cannot be ignored. This issue has been a hot potato in Namibia for many years. Even the Presidential Commission on Education, Culture and Training (2001) referred to the widespread “…concern about Government policy on ‘automatic’ promotion”. Against this background, no amount of denial would halt the people’s anxiety about the perceived damage caused by the said educational policy. It was hence shocking to learn that in a recent press statement, the Ministry of Education denied the existence of such a policy. Yet, at times like this, a self-critical approach would be more fruitful than being defensive. Basically the policy means that a learner can repeat once during each educational phase: Grades 1-4, Grades 5-7 and Grades 8-10. Grade 10 is however an exception since students are not allowed to repeat this grade at all. Logic tells us that the effect of this policy is most felt at the secondary education phase. At Grade 10, for example, learners are expected to write an external examination, which demands competency, which learners did not attain due to automatic promotion. Automatic promotion’s negative impact on the quality of the senior secondary level cannot be overemphasised. The vicious circle spills over to higher education institutions that have to take in half-qualified students that would eventually enter the labour market half-baked. Taking all the above educational factors into consideration it is not surprising that the Cambridge system has not produced a pass rate above 50% since its inception. The Ministry keeps on repeating the same song of “annual improvement?” The song has been based on a misplaced conception of a “pass rate” that is based on the number of students obtaining a “G” symbol. The fact of the matter is that for the period 2001-2005, the cumulative percentages for IGCSE results have reflected that only about 16-17% students obtained a “C” grade while the majority, about 86-87% leave school with a mere “G”grade. For these young people the future becomes very bleak since they can neither continue with their studies nor find suitable employment. The HIGCSE examination results have not been any better. The cumulative percentages for the period 2002-2005 for example, indicates that whilst only about 10-11% obtained Grade 1 (the highest grade on the HIGCSE scale), 93-96% leave school with Grade 4, which is the lowest on a four point scale. As a matter of fact only 6 percent students qualified for admission to UNAM and the Polytechnic during 1999-2002. Education quality: Quality in education can be understood in terms of an educational content and practice that encourage critical examination of power relations within society; and which provides useful tools with which people can improve their conditions of life. The multiple educational problems we have experienced over the past years have had a negative effect on quality in education. Various research has shown that the quality of education in our schools is disappointing The Ministry of Education also acknowledges this in its Education and Training Sector Improvement Programme (ETSIP – 17 August 2005) document, that “most children leave school without the foundation skills and competencies they ought to have acquired”. It is hence not surprising that The Report of the Southern and East Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality (SACMEQ II – Dec. 2004) observed that on a 10-point scale, Namibia’s learner reading score was third from bottom, while their mathematics score was at the bottom of the scale. The study also found that teacher reading scores for Namibia is below the SACMEQ average. Their mathematics scores were disappointingly second from bottom, surpassing only Zanzibar. Under these circumstances, something dramatic needs to happen to reverse this trend. Research, education and development: The role that research can play in the process of socio-economic development cannot be overemphasized. In fact industrialized nations spend about 5-10% of their GDP on the promotion of applied and basic research, which in turns informs their development decisions. This fact notwithstanding, history tells us that research has never been at the top of Namibia’s priority agenda. It is also a widely accepted view that Namibia suffers from a poor reading culture. One gets an impression that even the few educational research works available largely go unnoticed, causing us to implement programmes based on practical experience and common sense, rather than scientifically reliable research results. The consequence being that education becomes costly since it may take years before we realize that the practical path we might have taken was not the best after all. Another problem is that of colonial hangover. Many of those in leadership positions have been raised and socialized under the colonial system, which created a culture of self-doubt. As a result some of them, having failed to shake off the colonial hangover, tend to look down at their own and fellow countrymen/women’s capacities and indigenous research products. Focusing on and making use of what comes from Europe and elsewhere. A move from these destructive tendencies would go a long way in utilizing available human resources wisely, to the benefit of all our peoples. The purpose of any University is to teach, research and preserve knowledge, not for its own sake, but as an institutional contribution to the socio-economic development. It is equally understood that a university’s reputation and profile depends on the quality of its academic and research output. Despite the central role that UNAM ought to have in providing leadership in the area of research, the institution’s research output has been minimal for various reasons: Firstly, it operates within a socio-economic context where research is not the big issue. Secondly, UNAM has for years operated as a teaching base institution because of having strong undergraduate programmes with rather sporadic post-graduate ones. Thirdly, as some academics have observed, UNAM management is more pre-occupied with getting the budget right, paying little attention to critical issues of re- search. This results in the absence of a focused priority research that is linked to national development needs. It was not until 2004, that UNAM’s Institutional Audit identified the need for the institution to have a strategic direction in amongst others, research and academic offerings. Commenting on the research output by the Multi-disciplinary Research Centre (MRCC), UNAM’s Institutional Audit Report pointed to applied research in solar energy, astrophysics and biotechnology. The importance of natural science notwithstanding, one gets the impression that the MRCC, which started off many years ago as a Social Science Division with a strong social science research bias, has now transformed its focus towards natural science research. This may not directly be helpful in solving major social issues such as education. Besides, MRCC may be able to co-ordinate research across UNAM. They would, however, not have the necessary capacity to produce major research output for the following reasons: – There are currently only two Senior Researchers at MRCC. The lack of senior research expertise has led to a situation where the Centre produces more research reports than in-depth research products. Within the context of UNAM’s Institutional Audit, Faculties and Centres’ hands are tight in terms of recruiting new staff. This state of affairs has left Namibians wishing to pursue an academic career virtually stranded. – Budgetary constraints is another issue that has forced MRCC to concentrate more on consultancy/donor driven research projects as opposed to engaging in priority research. We had for example come up with a 2-year research project on education that MRCC was to co-ordinate. This project is now gathering dust, due to lack of funding, since it falls outside the donor priority frameworks. – Lack of resources in the form of well-equipped research facilities, including shortage of laboratory equipment, worsens the research situation further. 3. Opportunities and the Way Forward If, in terms of Namibia’s Vision 2030, the country is to “join the ranks of high income countries that afford all their citizens the quality of life that is comparable to that of the developed world”; and if education, in terms of this Vision, is to “… contribute to the economic, moral, cultural and social development of citizens throughout their lives”, then our education system needs to undergo major refurbishing. Judging from the evidence above, one can conclude that the road towards achieving Vision 2030 will not only be long and bumpy, but, the success rate, especially in the field of education, shall be very low, at least in short and medium terms. One is however, encouraged by the Secondary Education examination results for Oshikoto region, that scooped the No. 1 position at the national level. Considering that Oshikoto is one of the disadvantaged northern regions, their educational showing indicates that there shall be light at the end of the tunnel. At the same time one can also argue that substantive progress could be made in education if the following steps are taken: – That education leadership at all levels need to pull up their socks and lead. – That economists are called in to review education finances and provide solutions to issues of prioritisation and appropriate spending models. – That the Ministry’s Planning Directorate is assisted in a way that enhances their planning capacity. – That issues of access, equity and quality in education be taken more seriously unlike the hitherto lip-service trend. – That Educational Research should be made a priority with sufficient resources (financial and human) allocated to it. – That automatic promotion practice be done away with in a bid to improve quality in our education system. – That there should be close co-operation between the Ministry of Education and research institutions in order to create the missing aspect of a “focused and prioritised” research agenda. – That the implementation of the Education and Training Sector Improvement Programme (ETSIP), be accompanied by review and monitoring processes. Lastly, it is of great significance if more educationalists, sociologists and researchers would join in the educational debate to share their professional views, for the benefit of the nation as a whole.. – Dr Elizabeth Amukugo is a former MP, National Assembly, and former Head of Department and Senior Lecturer at UNAM. An educational sociologist, she is currently a Senior Research Consultant.