BOTSWANA: Tertiary entrance examination troubles

The tertiary entrance examinations or the Botswana General Certificate of Secondary Education (BGCSE), which started on 11 October and run to mid-November 2010, are under threat. Industrial action involving secondary school teachers commenced in September with a work-to-rule and go-slow.

The Botswana Teachers' Union and the Botswana Secondary Teachers' Trade Union, the country's two key teacher unions, have been trying to negotiate with the ministry of education and skills development over the allowance to be paid to teachers for invigilating the school certificate examinations and for marking exam scripts.

So far the teacher unions are boycotting the exams, wanting to be paid P150 (about US$23) per hour instead of the P30 (about US$4.60) per hour they were offered - an increase of less than 2%. The resolution of this conflict was expected before the exams were due to start. Instead the education ministry, under Minister Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi, has stonewalled the unions.

The argument of the two unions is that the administration of the exams requires consistency - carried out at the same time as announced across the country and in the same manner. They claim this has not been happening.

If invigilators are not of sufficient quality and committed, there is a danger of irregularities in the exams, including leaked papers. The unions argue there are valid reasons for expecting invigilators to be qualified educational practitioners.

They ask: "Will the tertiary institutions trust the credibility of the BGCSE?" It could be that higher education institutions will now insist on administering their own set of entrance exams if the current exams are not considered to be reliable. It is even possible, say the unions, that the accrediting body in the UK could disqualify the exams.

Though Botswana has established an independent examinations council, its senior secondary school-leaving exam, the BGCSE, equivalent to the old O-level after 12 years of education (seven primary, three junior and two senior secondary school), is still accredited by the Cambridge syndicate in the UK. If the BGCSE is disqualified in 2010, graduates would most likely have difficulty gaining entrance to tertiary institutions elsewhere in the world.

Meanwhile the Botswana Examinations Council has called for unemployed graduates, retired teachers, public servants and others to assist with invigilation. In those primary schools where teachers were boycotting the school-leaving exams the Council called on the Botswana Defence Force to do the invigilation.

All new invigilators were provided with training at 10 regional education offices across the country. Double-page spread advertisements to explain to the public how the three exams would be run across each level have appeared, even in the private press.

More complicated will be the actual rewards for marking the exams. The current go-slow has teachers refusing to work more than the required eight hours a day. Students have not received assistance in extra-curricular, weekend and other activities beyond teachers' core duties, to which teachers normally give their time without receiving overtime compensation.

It is claimed there is now dissatisfaction in parts of the government and the general public that, first, the examinations council waited too long before negotiating with the unions, and second, that they are now spending excessively to achieve invigilation, and that it may be even more expensive than what the teacher unions had demanded.

The government has refused to consider going above the P30 ceiling, while the unions have demanded five times that. This impasse has yet to be resolved. Ruth Maphorisa, then permanent secretary in the ministry of education and skills development (now transferred to the youth ministry), announced that the ministry would "go it alone", or not negotiate with the unions, and find alternative ways to achieve the marking of the BGCSE.

This may not be easy as there are now problems in getting marks for practical work at the 28 senior secondary schools and over 220 junior secondary schools in those subjects where it is required. Unless differences are resolved by November a greater challenge lies ahead in the actual marking of the exams.