Our education system has been on a downward trajectory for decades now. Even though standards have slipped, it has not made things easier for students. Rampant cheating is just a reminder of the fact that the system has become hollow. In a positive gesture, Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah wrote an open letter last week to the parents of candidates appearing in parts I and II of the Secondary School Certificate and the Higher School Certificate examinations. His appeal, however, went unheeded. Hundreds of students continued to indulge in cheating and exam papers were leaked all over the province. This is indeed a matter of serious concern, which cannot be curbed with cosmetic measures alone.
Let’s do some soul-searching, hold each other accountable without being afraid of overstepping the mark and honestly discuss why our decades-long efforts have been unsuccessful.
Is it a lack of skills, competence, resources, leadership or what? You may tick off all the mentioned factors. I personally think we can overcome these deficiencies only if we are able to create a culture where honest feedback is given and positively received at the other end. Currently, the system encourages an exchange of favors. By bartering favors between government and influential external stakeholders, all dissenting voices have been silenced.
Persuading parents is only one side of the issue, the CM should immediately review the rules of the six boards of education in Sindh which were drawn up in the 70s and 80s. Besides devising strategies to control cheating, question papers or the method of examination requires thorough review as most of the questions are designed on the basis of rote-learning, which doesn’t test students’ conceptual understanding of the subject, nor their ability to apply it. The board authorities must study contemporary practices in the world and then bring about necessary changes in their examination system.
A few years ago, the government of Sindh had initiated a dialogue with the British Council Karachi in this regard. I remember attending a couple of those meetings but due to the transfer of some officers, nothing materialized out of it. It would be worthwhile to resume those discussions and invite the Cambridge Examination Board and the Aga Khan Examination Board as well. Alongside these efforts, boards must come up with a strong mechanism for making themselves free of corruption and repairing their tainted public image.
The widespread use of modern technology like Bluetooth, WhatsApp and the like has made it virtually impossible to stop students from cheating, according to the chairman of the Board of Intermediate and Secondary Education in Hyderabad.
Following the 18th amendment to the Constitution, the matter of curriculum has been devolved to the provinces. In order to take full advantage of this opportunity, the province has to do a lot. So far, the Bureau of Curriculum has been renamed as Directorate of Curriculum, Assessment, and Research. There are 25 core subjects and around 78 optional ones. But the capacity of the department is extremely limited. With meager human and financial resources, how can we expect to bring the curriculum on a par with international standards?
The quality of textbooks plays a pivotal role in making students successful in exams but the current quality of textbooks produced by the Sindh Textbook Board is not up to the mark. From class one to eight, all textbooks have been revised on the basis of the National Curriculum of 2006 in Sindh, which is a positive development. But the board must quickly move on to revising textbooks for secondary and secondary classes. The Sindh Textbook Board’s annual budget is around two billion rupees. The provincial government provides textbooks free of charge to all students enrolled in public schools. Last year the board distributed 4.8 million books among students from class one to ten. Overall, the board publishes around 25 million books every year. Despite that, there appears to be little impact on student learning.
Last but not the least, students wouldn’t resort to cheating if there are competent, motivated and knowledgeable teachers. Do we have teachers with such qualities? No! Then why are we crying foul? First things first, let’s ensure all prerequisites are in place. After all, the future of our children is at stake.
By Asghar Soomro