By Leroy Dzenga
Last week Professor Arthur Mutambara ignited debate on social media platforms after writing a lengthy piece criticising the country`s examination system.
The long article, which was published by several online publications, at first read like a clever piece from an erudite individual but upon scrutiny made it all apparent that the Professor’s reasoning could have been coloured by historical amnesia.
Prof Mutambara’s gripe is against the Zimbabwe School Examinations Council (ZIMSEC), which he accused of dishing out high passes to under-serving students, an approach which he said is diminishing the quality and relevance of the country’s examination system.
When one makes a bold claim casting aspersions on an examination system to the point of calling it a cancer, the burden of proof emerges automatically.
In my view, Prof Mutambara failed to give convincing evidence on how grades are being manipulated.
Instead, he complained; “How do you get one school getting 79 students with 15 points (or more) out of 140 students? This is 56 percent of the students getting the same top examination outcome. This is shameless grade inflation.”
By building his anger around such a statistic, Mutambara missed a simple nuance in Zimbabwe`s education system.
There are schools which do not accept learners at Advanced Level unless they have at least 5As.
The same applies to Form One admission where there are schools which do not recruit learners with grades above seven units.
Given such a scenario, we should not be angered when more than half of the students end up passing with flying colours. It’s simple probability playing out.
I humbly submit that it would have made sense if Prof Mutambara had flagged a skewed “policy” that permits schools to recruit only the best performers at different levels.
The real concern is that learners at schools which have become famed for good results are coached to pass examinations but I am not sure how this can be blamed on ZIMSEC.
This was revealed by national critical skills audit commissioned by the Ministry of Higher and Tertiary Education, Innovation, Science and Technology Development which found out that although Zimbabwe’s literacy rate is around 96 percent, critical skills are around 38 percent.
These insights were not entirely new; they have been public knowledge since the submission of the Nziramasanga Commission report in 1999.
Lazarus Dokora’s competence-based curriculum (known as the New Curriculum) was structured in a way that allows learners to be continuously assessed through coursework instead of a single examination sitting.
Regrettably, the coursework element in the New Curriculum is not being implemented fully and this leaves examinations as the only measure of competence.
In short, our education system is using a narrow approach to assess the aptitude of learners and that is in itself a problem, not sure if it is entirely a ZIMSEC issue.
Professor Mutambara drew inspiration to pen the article from his experience with high- performing students and the difficulties he faces in enrolling them at top-notch Western universities.
His argument was that it is hard to sell the best minds we have when they are not in limited supply.
To me it spoke to the urgent need for decoloniality in our education discourse.
We cannot alter a country’s education system to appease a few Ivy League institutions in America and Oxbridge colleges in England.
The reason why old age Cambridge in Zimbabwe had fewer glowing passes was because of the bottlenecking system which was meant to ensure only a few black people occupied critical spaces in the economy.
We are still grappling with the results. This is why we still have people who boast to be lone surgeons and experts in specific fields. I find his praise for Western examination systems to be ahistorical.
His reference to Cambridge and Oxford made it sound as if Zimbabwe should remodel its examination system to match the template in England.
Upon closer look, one sees there are headaches in England with the same issue of grade inflation, just more traceable than in Zimbabwe. A 2019 BBC report expressed concern in the country’s higher education system where there were unexplained first class degrees in Britain’s higher education system.
Professor Mutambara’s suggestion was that learners from Zimbabwe cleanse themselves so they can be absorbed by a more “contaminated” system.
In any case, Professor Mutambara, himself a whizkid of sorts, betrays an elitist outlook when he says Cambridge does not have the same problem as ZIMSEC.
Again, he offers no evidence to this effect.
There are instances in which Zimbabwean learners have passed with flying colours after writing Cambridge examinations.
It is just that there are not as many because Cambridge is not for everyone, it is for those with the means.
The difference in density is not because the system is more complex or better but because only a few privileged Zimbabweans can afford it. More students write ZIMSEC examinations and more students pass ZIMSEC examinations.
There is already debate that ZIMSEC examinations may need to be re-engineered but not in the way Professor Mutambara suggests.
Presently, the ZIMSEC O-Level pass rate stands at 31,6 percent.
What this means is beyond the outliers Professor Mutambara is concerned with, more than half of the learners sitting for examinations are not passing.
Why should ZIMSEC inflate grades to please learners who are already performing instead of fixing their national percentage?
Where is the bigger incentive, appeasing a few learners who are already good or propping up learners with challenges?
Any attempt to make passing harder will drop the numbers to worse levels, which will reduce our education to a system that accommodates high performers only.
If anything, ZIMSEC should be applauded for keeping the grades unmoved even in the face of bad results. In South Africa, where Professor Mutambara is domiciled, 30 percent is all one needs to pass a Matric subject. In Zimbabwe it is a fail.
South Africa did it to save face in the wake of a declining pass rate. This is why Zimbabwean learners become superstars if they enrol in South African schools. Our examination system is comparatively more thorough.
Whatever ZIMSEC and Zimbabwe are doing bad, South Africa is doing it worse.
A friend quipped that Professor Mutambara is worried the new crop is taking away the novelty of his 80s whizkid status.
There may be a bit of truth in the joke as the recent article shows a man who suspended objectivity to drive a point home.
ZIMSEC needs to be worked on, but the good Professor`s quick read may have given a wrong diagnosis.