Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Answering the 2010 selection question

BY RICHARD CHIROMBO

Benedicto Kondowe, National Coordinator for Civil Society Coalition for Quality Basic Education (CSCQBE), is a man of high estimations; he sets his eyes on the future and never looks back, overtly sure that human beings will always learn from history’s toughest lessons.

Like so many who hope that tomorrow may be better than today, his optimism for the future of education in Malawi is pregnant almost to a fault. At least, that is the impression one gets from Kondowe since announcement of the 2009 Primary School Leaving Certificate Examinations (PSLCE) results, and list of candidates selected to various national secondary schools.

Dots of pessimism and discouragement now mark facial expressions once decorated with hope and optimism. Moreover, Kondowe cannot help but look back at life’s little lessons- something that brings him to the realization that, after all, childhood was a lesson, too.

The lesson he gets: When you are a small child, you know something is not right, and you do not like it. But you do not question it, and you never let that get you down; you, sought of, just continue to move on with life, to live.

This is the situation Malawian Civil Society Organisations (CSO) found themselves in when the country embraced multiparty democracy in 1994. They could see things go wrong with the new political leaders and merely move on with their lives.

“Now we have matured with age and are ready to question those in authority whenever we see that something has gone amiss. We have even gone a step further and are increasingly engaging the government in dialogue on various issues of national interest,” says Kondowe.

A good case in point is that of the 2009 PSLCE secondary school selection list. Kondowe, the Livingstonia Synod of the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian and others feel shortchanged on the results, and are questioning the Ministry of Education.

The bone of contention, over an issue government officials say is far way straight forward, is the difference in regional percentage points. CSCQEBE and Livingstonia Synod are questioning the rationale behind drastic reductions in selected students from the Northern region, and suspect an invisible hand and system to be at play.

“Why, for example, is it that the number of students selected to national secondary schools for Northern region candidates has dwindled from 19 per cent in 2009 to 13 per cent (representing a decrease of 6 percentage points) in 2010? At the same time, the number of students from the Southern and Central region has increased from 36 per cent in 2009 to 42 percent in 2010, and 42 per cent in 2009 to 44 percent in 2010, respectively. We suspect foul play,” said Kondowe.

What sort of foul play?

“We believe that the quota system has been used indiscreetly,” he adds, his anger beginning to appear.

The issue of quota system has a deep surface. It existed during the one party regime and was, subsequently, abandoned. Then, in 2007, the University Council reignited debate over the issue following concerns presented in Parliament by one opposition Member of Parliament over the shortfalls of University Entrance Examinations (UEE).

The MP noted that UEE was creating selection disparity between urban and rural students but the Council identified regional disparity and not urban versus rural was what the Council identified as a core issue.

Facts established by the council indicated that about 3000 students qualify for entrance examinations every year, competing for about 900 spaces only. It then requested the Centre for Education Research and Training (CERT) to conduct a comprehensive study to confirm or disqualify this impression.

The University Council, however, noted the social-political implications of the trend to the future of Malawi’s education, and recommended to the University Senate in 2007 to consider re-introducing the quarter system, but the Senate pleaded for more time and consultations.

Now CSCQBE believes the Malawi National Examinations Board (Maneb), which is not related to the University Council or Senate, has borrowed a leaf from the University of Malawi and applied a quota system of selection.

“Otherwise, Maneb should come out in the open and explain its selection criteria. People may lose trust in it. It is also good for the government to be transparent because it will help the regions that have not done better to get back to successful, old ways,” said Kondowe.

However, Education Minister George Chaponda feels that CSOs suspecting foul play are seeing opium smoke where plantations never exist. The 2010 secondary selection process was normal, he says, and nothing sinister ever happened.

Chaponda assures Malawians that government would not behind their backs and implement a system that is far from matured, asking people to get regional politics out of the selection equation.

The issue of quota system is a contentious issue even within the file and ranks of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), following the firing of former Director of Political Affairs Harry Mkandawire.

This was after Mkandawire’s public criticism of government’s intention to employ the quota system. The party liked no bit of his criticism of President Bingu wa Mutharika, who has vowed to make development, including access to higher education, equitable to all Malawians.

Mutharika has often advocated for equality in sharing the national development cake, and says just such a development could help spur a new era of all-round development.

DPP has, thus, not taken lightly to CSCQBE and Livingstonia Synod accusations of under-hand tactics. Dr. Hetherwick Ntaba, DPP Publicity Secretary, feels that the sentiments are innuendos aimed at the ruling party- now driving the current administration.

“The Livingstonia Synod and others should know that the schools in question are national schools and not regional schools. These people are advocating regional lines, yet the number of Northern region students in the country’s education facilities is more than the 13% Livingstonia Synod is claiming. People must know that these students are scattered all over Malawi.”

Ntaba adds that, in fact, “Section 20, subsection 2 of the Republican Constitution requires that government acts to address any inequalities in the country. If I may ask, why are other regions not complaining; they are a silent majority.”

CSCQBE has since threatened to take stern action, among others by carrying out a more comprehensive study on the “evils” of the year’s secondary school selection criteria.

“Equitable distribution should not be retrospective,” says Kondowe.

It remains to be seen whether the coalition will take any real action. However, a 2009 study conducted in four SADC countries by Development Media Africa (Dema) revealed that CSOs rarely succeed in their advocacy roles.

The Dema study indicated, for instance, that only 3 per cent of advocacy efforts for Malawian CSOs worked for the past five years, with Zambia, Zimbabwe and Namibia reporting a 13 per cent effectiveness rate.

What is more? The study, which had 1780 respondents in all the four countries, revealed that CSOs rarely follow what they preach, often doing the very same things they scorn governments for.

A recent press conference on equal distribution of resources in the education sector, organized by the equality-conscious CSCQBE in Blantyre, could be a good case in point. While coalition officials vilified government for sidelining the Northern region in this year’s secondary school selection in the presence of 28 journalists, they handpicked only eight members of the pen for sitting allowances.

Equitable distribution the CSCQBE-way!

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