THE BECE SAGA
By: Francis Sowa
Sometime last year, I wrote an article titled ‘A Call for a National Conference on Education.’ In that article, I raised a number of issues on the state and quality of education in Sierra Leone. I made reference to the poor performance of pupils in public examinations (National Primary School Examination (NPSE), Basic Education Certificate Examination (BECE) and the West African Senior School Certificate Examination (WASSCE)), but who unfortunately ‘progressed’ to junior and senior secondary schools and tertiary institutions all over the country. Evidence abounds to show that some pupils bribed their way into getting unmerited promotions. They succeeded amidst existing laws and policies detailing who progresses to what level. Then came an action from the Ministry of Education. The starting point was to arguably ‘clean up’ the list of pupils taking this year’s WASSCE. The ministry had one message for the enthusiastic pupils who were doing their entries – only those who passed the BECE would be allowed to take the WASSCE. Pass in this sense was understood to mean those with aggregate 38 or better, out of a total aggregate of 42. Arguments began. Tensions arose. Tempers flared. I have listened to various viewpoints. I have watched the drama unfolded. I start by recounting some of them.
I hear the number of pupils affected by the implementation of this policy is over 3,000. Some of them said on a local radio that they passed, but they could not locate their results, either by their carelessness or natural disasters. Others asked why the Ministry of Education was only implementing the policy at present. Without necessarily answering that question, the ministry still notes that the policy is clear- only pupils who passed the BECE should be admitted to senior secondary school and should subsequently take the WASSCE. It insists that “If you do not pass the BECE, you cannot take the WASSCE.” Sylvester Meheux, Chairman of the Conference of Principals of Secondary Schools (CPSS), Western Region said in one of the local radio stations that some principals were deviating from the Government policy. He said some of his colleagues were admitting pupils without the prescribed requirement. He said some pupils who were refused admission in some schools because they failed the BECE would later go to their former schools bluffing that they had been admitted in other schools. Mr. Meheux said the problem was mostly with ‘the new private schools.” He said some of the aggrieved principals wanted to seek the support of their association, but he noted that “the CPSS cannot support what is wrong.” With reference to the pupils who failed the BECE, but wanted to take the WASSCE, Mr Meheux said “If you cannot carry a sheep, you cannot carry a cow.” The CPSS chairman said people had been complaining that standards were falling, pointing out “we must start somewhere to restore the standards.”
The question as to why the ministry is only implementing the law now is a non-starter. The law is still the law whether it was implemented or not. It is the business of those in authority to implement the law. That is what the ministry has done. But for those who asked the question, I also ask, why did principals admit pupils who did not pass the BECE? Why did the pupils seek admission to senior secondary school when they knew that they failed the BECE? Those parents who are asking the ministry to give their children concession to take the exam, why did they not advise their children to retake the exam? In all of the above instances, the players in question decided to take a risk. They had the chances of succeeding or failing. They should have settled for any outcome. In this case, it went against their wish. They should put up with the consequences.
I doubt those who believe that the principals are not au fait with government’s policy for progression to senior secondary school. Without committing the fallacy of hasty generalisation, it is clear that the principals know the policy and some of them allegedly received bribes from parents and pupils for admission. They bank on the fact that ours is a country where most people are determined to “pay bribes for almost everything and anything” and with the firm conviction that nothing would come out of it.
As it stands now, evidence abounds that the NPSE is halfway in terms of its integrity; the BECE is fast losing its standards, while the reliability on the WASSCE leaves much to be desired. These issues have contributed to the pupils’ (later students’) poor performances in tertiary institutions and the world of work. I would not be surprised if all tertiary institutions in Sierra Leone announce an entrance examination before their final admission of new students.
Section 9 (1) of the Constitution of Sierra Leone, Act No. 6 of 1991 provides that “The Government shall direct its policy towards ensuring that there are equal rights and adequate educational opportunities for all citizens at all levels by— a. ensuring that every citizen is given the opportunity to be educated to the best of his ability, aptitude and inclination by providing educational facilities at all levels and aspects of education such as primary, secondary, vocational, technical, college and university;…” Related to this issue is Section 8 (1) of the Education Act, 2004 which provides that “Senior secondary schooling shall be for students who have completed the junior secondary school course and obtained the required BECE grades.” I hear that the ‘required BECE grade’ is contained in the 2004 Enrolment Policy which prohibits pupils who fail the BECE from proceeding to WASSCE. From the rights based approach, it is clear that while the government has the responsibility to provide education; it is the responsibility of the pupils to take their academic work seriously, to pass their exams and to abide by the rules governing progression from one level to another.
I have disagreed with some policies of Dr. Minkailu Bah, our Minister of Education, but I totally agree with him particularly on this and some other good policies. This agreement has, however, not come without asking the ministry to do some more work.
In the first place, asking the pupils not to take the WASSCE is not the end of the matter. The principals or whosoever admitted them to senior secondary school must be answering some questions by now. They should explain on what grounds they admitted such pupils. The ministry should hold them responsible and accountable for their action. The ministry should properly deal with the registration and establishment of what I have called the ‘not here not there private schools’ as provided for in Sections 15 and 16 of the Education Act of 2004.
The reasons for the failure of pupils at BECE should be addressed by implementing succinct exiting recommendations or finding more realistic ones. This is because a plethora of factors are responsible for the pupils’ poor performance, including the poor teaching and learning environment in some schools, the lack of the required training and qualification of and motivation for some teachers, and the attitude of some teachers and even the pupils.
For those pupils who had already failed, it is better for them to retake the BECE and to build on a better foundation, than to be allowed to take the WASSCE only to come out with abysmal results. There is no bypass in acquiring education. Those who passed but cannot locate their results should go to their schools or the West African Examinations Council for originals or copies of their results.
The parents who are asking the ministry to give their children concession should know that some of us were asked by our parents to retake public exams to acquire the appropriate requirements. I make bold to say that I have taken re-sit papers in public exams. What I learnt and properly passed in school is still relevant in my world of work.
In all of these, the end point is that the integrity of our educational system is diminishing. The quest for money, greed, lack of pride and other personal benefits have affected the pillars of integrity in the country. The Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) should step up its fight in the restoration of integrity to the country’s educational system.
If there is no proper academic foundation, there can be no secured academic success. The Bible has it to say that “If the foundation is destroyed, what can the righteous do.” This is a test case for the Ministry of Education. In the words of Sylvester Meheux, Chairman of the CPSS “as soon as we give concessions, there is no policy.” Any attempt to compromise or to politicise the implementation of such a decision would reverse the gains the ministry and the nation at large would have made. The quest to clean up the educational system must continue. We should take another look at the progression of pupils from primary to junior secondary schools and from senior secondary schools to tertiary institutions including universities. We should not relent. As we strive to build a better future, we must resist any faulty academic foundation that will lead us into only constructing fragile academic building.
Francis Sowa is a journalist/social and media analyst and lecturer, Mass Communication Department, Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone (firstname.lastname@example.org, +232 76 866 519/ +232 77 866 569)