Hot public debate on student selection to public secondary schools

Principal Secretary for Education, Chikondano Mussa

* Exposes inequity of Malawi’s education system

* Only 84,497 lerners of 225,387 that passed exams were selected

* Vast majority that passed, 140,440 cannot access secondary education

* Ministry contends that this is due to lack of adequate secondary school places

By Duncan Mlanjira

The public is still not satisfied with an explanation that the Ministry of Education saying that the Tonse Government is taking the responsibility to address any inequalities present within the country’s education system following questions raised on the selection of primary school learners to public secondary schools.

An examination in progress

Out of 225,387 that passed the Primary School Leaving Certificate of Education (PSLCE) examinations, only 84,497 learners were selected for secondary schools and the vast majority that passed — 140,440 — were left out due to inadequate places.

The Ministry of Education takes cognizance that since the release of the selection results on January 4, there has been much speculation in the social media about the issue of the fairness of selection of the 1,860 students selected into national secondary schools.

“In particular, questions have arisen as to whether the ‘quota system’ remains in operation,” says a statement from the Ministry issued on Sunday, January 10 by Principal Secretary for Education, Chikondano Mussa.

Inadequate secondary school space

“It should be noted that selection is based ‘on merit’, based on the aggregate score of the top 5 PSLCE subjects (including English).”

The PSLCE are marked and graded by Malawi National Examination Board (MANEB) while the Ministry of Education, through the Directorates of secondary education, inclusive education, basic education and ICT, together with the Education Division selection teams, perform the selection to various secondary schools.   

“Selecting students into secondary schools is done after MANEB finalizes processing of examinations to the level of awarding grades,” says the Ministry. “At that point, a technical team from the Ministry goes to MANEB to collect a file of results for selection.”

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Ministry says the students are selected to national secondary schools from a national student merit list for boys and a national student merit list for girls.

“The cut-off score for selection for boys this year was 380. The cut-off score for girls was 354. Students are allocated to schools regardless of their home.

“For district boarding schools, district merit lists for boys and girls are drawn up such that only students from a given district are allocated to district boarding schools.

“For district day secondary schools, students are allocated based on their feeder primary school being within 10km of the community day secondary schools (CDSS) and thereafter based on merit.”

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It further says CDSS students are allocated in a similar manner to district day secondary schools, based on their feeder schools and thereafter based on merit.

Actions undertaken in response to public concern

The Ministry says it has come up with three immediate actions will be undertaken that include an independent investigation/audit of the 2019/20 PSLCE examinations and secondary school selection to be carried out by the Office of the Ombudsman.

This will be in view of the legal mandate of the Office of the Ombudsman under both the Constitution and the Ombudsman Act.

There will also be an independent expert group, including leading academics to undertake a multi-year analysis of PSLCE examination results to determine the nature, extent and causes of inequities in PSLCE across the country.

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A special fund of MK1 billion shall be created, as a start, for infrastructure improvements to CDSSs in greatest need of refurbishment and renovation.

“The Tonse Government takes responsibility to address any inequalities present within the Education System,” Mussa says. “Many inequalities have been longstanding and result from the persistent under-investment, politicisation and maladministration of education in Malawi.”

She adds that the investigation/audit report by the Office of the Ombudsman is expected to be available within 4 months in time to ensure any appropriate changes can be made for future examination and selection processes.

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“The Ministry welcomes this audit by the Office of the Ombudsman and commits to respond to its findings and to implement its recommendations as soon as possible.

Commenting on Facebook, Kondwani Zulu notices that the Ombudsman has been given four months to finish the investigation but was that statement released with the consent of the Ombudsman?

“Otherwise they might be putting the Ombudsman under undue pressure. It would have been better if the Ombudsman had announced her own timelines,” he said.

Ombudsman Martha Chizuma

Linda Sowoya suggested that the Ministry need not wait for the Ombudsman but just to release list of students selected to national secondary schools against their grades and those to district sencondary schools against their grades — “simple as that”.

“Just last year, this very Ministry said quota system was not used in the selection of students to secondary schools. A month later, the same Ministry admitted to using quota system for the selection into secondary schools.

“Angotulutsa mayina onse ndi ma grades, basi nkhani yatha (they should just release list of students selected against their grades — that will be case closed.”

Golden Mbeya added that the Ministry should release names and grades of those selected to national secondary schools to be compared with those selected to district secondaries in the North.

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Profigo Victor suggested that selection must be done randomly using computers to reduce bias, saying manual selection is subject to subjectivity and manipulation.

“Also let people be aware at the beginning as to what selection criterion will be used. Remove manual selection methods by just feeding results or scores and examination numbers.

“To me, four months [given to the Ombudsman] is too long. Let it be two months at maximum so that results are timely known and action on it taken.

“It is also high time government constructed its own schools. Remember 95% or more of national secondary schools are owned by churches — mostly the Catholic Church, CCAP and Anglican.

Most schools are church-owned

“One day they can [claim complete ownership and management of] their schools and [if that was to happen] what will happen to government education agenda?

“Also let MANEB publish all this year’s results by name and scores. That’s the best way because the results are there already.”

SK Phiri was of the opinion that the investigation must start with the raw scripts — how they were marked and marks were awarded; and then IT experts should also come in and analyse the MANEB data management system just the same way as Daud Suleman and Bendulo did with the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) system.

This, he said was in case there are script instructions which may auto-change entered the data for the benefit of certain regions.

“Only if this is done, the outcry will continue! Maybe.”

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Harvey Munthali said in addition to the Ombudsman inquiry, there should also be a team of independent IT experts who should conduct an audit into the MANEB database.

“There is no system which is foolproof. Computers operate on garbage in, garbage out basis.

“We saw this during the last disputed elections how scripts manipulated results in the Malawi Electoral Commission system. Without the help of one of the most renowned IT gurus, Daud Suleman, we could all have been fooled by the MEC computer-generated results which had been heavily manipulated,” Munthali said.

The debate raged on and took a twist that this might all be being too sensitive towards regionalism.

Hastings Thembakako opined that “it appears now it is a debate between objectivity vs subjectivity. Explanations have been given and we need to accept and move forward. I believe that any shortfalls will be addressed as we move forward.”

Need to have more schools

Medical practitioner, Dr. Tamiwe Tomoka bemoaned the continuous debate of the inequality selection into national schools, saying “we can’t as a nation be glorifying and fighting for national schools year-in year-out — same story about criteria.

“Let’s advocate for ‘nationalisation’ of all public secondary schools, level the ground, equal opportunities and quality education.

“Opportunities for public tertiary education don’t take into account which school and quality one is coming from as such still disadvantaging those that did not make it to glorified national public schools.

“Actually this ‘national school’ thing in the ‘modern’ times is embarrassing, in my view,” she said.

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Enock Sankhulani Banda said “this nation is divided indeed and until that day we will stop this nonsense [that this one is from the] North, South or Central and we refer to everyone as a Malawian, I am sure if more were selected from North those from Central or South [could still have complained]”

Ba Kondwah also said he fails to fathom why every year the public questions the selection criteria and condemn it wanting a different version.

“And at the same time call for an audit and inquiry of the same, yet the underlying issues have been there since 30 years ago. We are not moving. It’s like doing the same script expecting different result.

“We all know the underlying causes — inadequacy of infrastructure which has been neglected for long.

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“So, we talk of an inquiry for what? Some investment is being done like the US and World Bank-funded infrastructures, but what about laboratories and lab equipment, quality of teachers etc.”

He added that talking of merit following the imbalances in the inadequacy of infrastructure shall just continue to create the continues  outcries and uproar over inequalities.

Onjezani Kenani disclosed that he had a 45-minute call with the Principal Secretary Mussa, who stressed that the selection was strictly done on merit and anybody is welcome to take an independent look at the entire process that was followed.

He quotes Mussa as saying merit was followed and it turned out that the qualifying students ended up being more than the available national secondary school space by 46, but even those 46 were squeezed into the national secondary schools, as they had met the qualifying criteria.

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She is reported to have said education and MANEB officials involved in the selection are drawn from all corners of the country — “indeed all regions — and it is a transparent process that can even be beamed on television.

“With merit, it is easier because they simply sort the results from highest to lowest, then award spaces available based on merit.

“No single person is responsible for marking and awarding marks to any candidate. They have a conveyor-belt system of marking.

“A marks question 1-5, B marks 6-10 and so on, then an independent person totals up the scores. Only student numbers or codes are used, and until after the selection has been made, no one knows the districts or regions of where the successful candidates came from,” Mussa is quoted as saying.