Columnists Features

Improving our grim benchmark in education

ZAMBIA has reached a grim benchmark in education standards. This calls for urgent measures to address a situation that can undermine the nation’s development goals if left unchecked.

To understand the full extent of the decline in education standards, one needs to examine the performance of pupils. The various researches and surveys that have been carried out in the last 10 years have shown that the literacy and numeracy levels of Zambian learners are below those of their counterparts in the sub-region.  

Zambia was ranked 14th out of 15 countries by a survey measuring pupil achievement by the Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Education Quality (SACMEQ). The survey examined reading and mathematics performance of learners at Grade Six level in Botswana, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, the Seychelles, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, Zanzibar, and Zimbabwe.
Historical performance in reading in English recorded the following 33.2 percent (1999), 33.4 percent (2001), 33.9 percent (2003), 34.4 percent (2006), 35.3 percent (2008), 34.12 percent (2012) and 32. 05 percent (2014), whilst in numeracy the performance was 34.3 percent (1999), 35.7 percent (2001), 38.5 percent (2003), 38.5 percent (2006), 39.3 percent (2008), 38.3 percent (2012) and 35.49 percent (2014).
Similarly, findings of poor pupil performance in earlier grades have been reported by the Examinations Council of Zambia (ECZ) and Early Grade Reading and Mathematics in Zambia (EGRMZ) from 1999 to 2015.
On a literacy level, EGRMZ reported that most Grade Two pupils were struggling to read fluently. At best, a learner at that level could not string words together into a coherent sentence.
They also did not fare any better when it came to mathematics. In addition and subtraction, nearly 50 percent of the pupils surveyed scored zero, an indication that they had not learnt how to solve complex problems.
Addressing problems associated with low pupil performance requires looking at teacher performance and school leadership. According to statistics, school leadership contributes 20 percent towards a learner’s performance, whilst a combination of leadership and teacher performance contributes 70 percent while learning infrastructure and resources contribute 30 percent.
Therefore, teachers that have the content, pedagogy, continuous professional development coupled with passion and commitment are likely to produce outstanding learner performance.
However, the current situation stifles passionate and committed teachers. A myriad of issues are at play starting with posting and transfers, all the way down to enforcing discipline.
Briefly, nearly all qualified teachers are employed and posted to remote rural schools with the promise that after serving for two years, they would be transferred to urban areas. Unfortunately, this promise is not fulfilled. Teachers remain in rural schools for a very long time, at times at the expense of their families, and husband and wife are posted to different provinces. It is also true that teachers who are strongly connected to heavyweights in the public sector never get posted to rural areas.
Such double standards do not only lead to overstaffing in urban schools while rural ones remain thinly staffed, but also lead to frustration among teachers.
On appointments, confirmations and promotions, it is not uncommon to have unfilled vacancies for years, a situation that has brought about the term ‘warming the chair’ for teachers who act in those positons without being confirmed.
Teachers that ‘warm the chairs’ often feel frustrated because they carry out the job effectively but  are not considered for that position.
While promotion must be based on merit, fortunately, teachers come to realise that, oftentimes, this is not the case. When all else fails, the teachers resort to politics as there is a deep-seated belief that being politically connected would get one promoted.
When it comes to enforcing discipline, it is not uncommon to see erring teachers go scot-free. In some cases, there are wrong-doers who are perceived as untouchables.
All these issues go to the core of undermining professionalism among teachers.
There has been an on-going debate as to whether teachers are professionals and the answer has been no. The reason that has been advanced has been that, unlike lawyers, who are professionals, teachers lack a regulating body such as the Law Association of Zambia (LAZ). With the establishment of the Teaching Council of Zambia, a teacher’s regulatory body, things should change.
I strongly believe that to sanitise the teaching profession, the Teaching Service Commission (TSC) and the Teaching Council of Zambia (TCoZ) have to play a key role. The role of TSC as an employer of the teachers must be strengthened to appoint, promote, confirm and discipline erring teachers.
Alongside this, TCoZ must as a matter of urgency produce and publish a teachers’ register and fully operationalise related functions of monitoring professionalism. For example, on the basis of an inspection report, a teacher can be deregistered and ultimately dismissed.
In order for the inspectorate function to be effective, there is need to decentralise right down to the district level.
Overall, the two bodies working together would help to inject high levels of professionalism among teachers. In this way, teachers would have a great deal of time in class towards meeting prescribed benchmarks.
Talking about benchmarks, the Zambia Qualification Authority (ZQA) must, with the greatest urgency, establish qualification frameworks, which would serve as acceptable criteria for learner performance for each level of education.
This, coupled with enhanced teacher professionalism and school governance, would rapidly bring about the much desired improvement in education standards as both private and public schools would be held accountable based on the same criteria.
The author is chancellor of the University of Africa.


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