Coincidentally, after I had written last week about the complications caused by Zonal Education Offices setting termly examination question papers for schools, the Minister of Education himself raised the question at the fortnightly Parliamentary Group Meeting. He was hurt, understandably so, at the harsh criticism of errors in a number of papers set by a number of Zones.

His point was that there were many important things to think about, including obviously, most recently, the introduction of a Technological Stream for major public examinations. This is indeed a laudable development, though I cannot understand why the Ministry does not go further and promote a free mixture of subjects, with greater breadth as is happening in examination systems round the world which are being emulated in more and more countries. But while such innovations are beyond the scope of the Ministry now, given that its officials are stuck – and allowed to stick – in mindsets long superseded elsewhere, we must be thankful for small mercies such as the long overdue recognition of the importance of technology.

I sympathized with the Minister’s irritation, especially when he pointed out that there were only three examinations that were important in a child’s life, namely the Year 5 Scholarship Examination, and the Ordinary and Advanced Level Examinations. This is true, though it is a pity that the education system puts so much pressure on children at the age of 10, when putting more energy into ensuring that rural schools provide better services at secondary level too would be more equitable for all children.

Again I think the Ministry, and Principals, must do more to save children from the current rat race at Ordinary Level, since that is a qualifying, not a competitive examination. The excitement over a few children getting As for all subjects leads to neglect of the children who fail to pass in enough. Introducing intense competition at that stage means that children miss out on other aspects of education, the extra-curricular activities that develop skills and capacities that are vital for productive and enjoyable employment.

So, while the Minister’s point was valid, he needs to think through its implications more carefully. And the point made by other Ministers was equally valid, namely that if you are going to have what amount to semi-public examinations, then you cannot tolerate lapses that waste the time and energy of children.

I can only hope then that the Ministry gets the message through that such bungling is not acceptable. But I think there is a simpler solution, which I put to the Minister, and which he seemed to agree with. This is to stop such examinations going public and revert to the old system which held all of us in good stead, which is to make schools set and mark such examinations themselves.

A journalist, from one of the papers the Minister had been most hurt about, told me that this might lead to papers of varying standards, but the answer to that is to monitor such papers, not to enforce uniformity – which also acts as a disincentive to teachers who want to encourage students to know and think beyond the basics. This would also reintroduce the concept of responsibility within a school, something that is eroding by the day, whereas government claims that it has a policy of developing this.

There will be resistance to such a move, because it will reduce the rent that now accrues to officials who set and mark such papers, and those who transport them. It will also reduce the leisure of teachers in schools who will not have responsibility for such examinations, unless they are lucky enough to be hired by the Zonal Office to mark the papers – in which case their responsibility is not to their students, but to bureaucrats.

It was perhaps because he feared opposition that the Minister suggested I bring an Adjournment Motion about the matter. I was touched by his faith in Parliamentary forms, but since nothing ever happens about the subject matter of adjournment motions and hardly anyone is present to listen to what is said, this seemed a useless exercise. What should be done, if the Minister agrees with the potential benefits, and the overcoming of potential problems, is for the Ministry to issue a circular.

This can easily be done, because such matters pertain to the area of National Policy, which comes under the purview of the Central Government. Certainly there should be consultation of Provincial officials, but certainly in the North the officials agreed with my suggestion, long before I knew how troubled the Minister was by what was happening – and I hope by the blunders as much as by the criticism of those blunders.

As I have long pointed out, government does not make adequate use of the constitutional provision concerning National Policy. This does not mean Policies should be laid down with regard to practical arrangements, and certainly Policies should be developed after nationwide consultation. But once they are formulated, the Centre should also make sure they are carried out.

This means that action in areas pertaining to National Policy has to be monitored, since implicit in the power to make Policy is the power to ensure that it is followed. Government should of course be scrupulous about not getting involved in delivery of services that belong to other levels of governance, provincial or local. But it certainly must ensure that those levels do not provide services that are sub-standard. Ensuring this can be left to provinces in matters under their aegis, but obviously the central government must have an overview in areas for which it is responsible.

Educational standards is clearly one such area. Unfortunately the Ministry of Education thinks it should get involved in delivery, which is a grave mistake. It should rather concentrate on its much more important role, and allow delivery to those who can do it most effectively down at the grassroots.

Daily news 7 September 2013 –