At the end of a four-year secondary school programme, every Zimbabwean is required to sit for the Ordinary Level (O Level) Examination. The pass rate in the past few years has hovered around 20%. That number means that, every year, only 20% of candidates who sit for the O Level exam score a grade ‘C’ or better in at least 5 subjects. The 20% are eligible to proceed to Advanced Level, where they can specialize in a subject area (broadly sciences, arts or commercials) before applying to university. The other 80% essentially drops out of the education system. Zimbabweans have lamented the decline in the pass rate over the years, calling for reforms aimed at restoring the higher pass rates of the past.
I find two major problems with these calls. Firstly, they are based on an incomplete diagnosis. Secondly, and partly because of the first problem, our solution is wrong.
The consensus in the country is that our decreased O Level pass rate is a testament to the overall drop in education standards in our country in the last couple of decades. While this is quite true, for me it does not get to the core of the problem – which is that thousands fail O Levels every year and drop out of education structures altogether. Even in our system’s heyday, as many as 60% of the students still failed O Levels. If that is our sole aspiration, to simply return to those ‘glory days,’ then there is a fundamental flaw to our system.
Let us consider how some countries have attempted to solve this problem (namely, of low pass-rates at secondary school level). Quite a few prominent countries have moved to ‘dumb down’ education curricular – essentially lowering the level of difficulty of the subject material to enable more people to pass. As you can imagine, such moves have been followed by backlashes from citizens who feel that such policies result in lower quality ‘products.’
I definitely concur. Not everyone is cut-out for Quantum Mechanics, for example. We could never possibly ‘dumb down’ quantum mechanics to a point where practically anyone could study and work in that field. The subject itself requires individuals with the aptitude for it. The same applies to O Level exams. We could not possibly dumb down O Level to a point where everybody would pass. Some people just aren’t cut out for it! Political correctness aside, that is a fact. Everybody does deserve a chance to learn, but not everybody possesses the same ability when it comes to academic performance, even with hard work factored in. That is the case with every other aspect of life besides academics. (Humour me for a second. Imagine if sporting ability were the preeminent requisite for success in life. That would automatically put many people at a disadvantage, wouldn’t it?) Dumbing down O Level to solve whatever we consider to be the problem, would be like awarding medals to all participants in a ten-athlete race. We would then ask ourselves, “what was the real purpose of the race?”
Some people can now argue that not all O Level has to be dumbed-down. For instance, there could be different tracks for students with different abilities. Indeed, this proposition holds a lot of promise. That is until we ponder more deeply: If we have a more difficult and an easier track, we do know that those who pass the more difficult track should wind up at university; but what then happens to those who pass in the less difficult, ‘dumbed-down’ track? Should we open parallel universities for them, too? Universities where pretty much anyone could pass? At this stage, this proposition begins to lose its viability. One might then argue that students who pass the less difficult track could then be enrolled in special programs in order to prepare them for university, along with students from the more difficult track. At best, such programmes could probably only have 10% pass rates. Why? Recall that these are students who had been in a weakened track precisely because they had very slim chances of making it into university through the ‘normal,’ more difficult track. Thus, in the end, there would still be a massive number of people who are simply dumped out of the education system because they could not surpass a particular academic hurdle.
Perhaps you have just had an epiphany. Enroll them in vocational training! you exclaim. Let them do woodwork, metal work, needlework and the likes! you add. We are on the same page, I say, but we are reading a little differently. Follow along.
There is a reason why Finland’s education system is the envy of most developed countries. Not only is it a great system in its own right, but it proves to be the best even when scrutinized using the said countries’ standards. There are many things to be learned from this system. I will only highlight one here, but in no way do I attribute Finland’s success solely to this aspect of their system.
When Finnish students reach a certain stage in their education, at about age 15 to 16, they have to make a serious decision. They get to decide whether they want to take a more vocation-oriented track, or a more academic one. In some years, they are almost split at 50-50. Incidentally, Zimbabwean students sit for O Levels at around the same age. The decision to be made is different? It is whether they can continue with their education, or not. Moreover, they do not decide, but the exam does. It decides that about 20% should proceed to a more advanced academic track, while 80% should drop out. I hope this piece of information provides the intended contrast between the world’s best education system on the one hand, and ours on the other.
In Finland, there are simply students who choose a largely vocational track and those who choose the largely academic track – nothing more to it. In Zimbabwe, there are so-called intelligent, hardworking students, and dumb, lazy students. The one system actively helps everybody equally. The other actively creates an unfortunate inequity.