“WHEN Jacaranda leaves start blooming, it means the time of reckoning is within sight.”
This parlance, popular among exam candidates in primary and high school, speaks to the annual schedule of national examinations.
Before Covid-19, examinations would generally start in October and end in late November.
Last year saw the first Advanced Level paper being written on December 1, 2020, the most delayed start for examinations since the Zimbabwe School Examinations Council (ZIMSEC) took over local examination management in 1995.
This year, due to the third wave induced lockdown which has disrupted the second term, there is emerging sentiment that the next instalment of examinations should be written next year, if the process should be fair to learners.
The 2020 Ordinary Level results showed a concerning fall in pass rates with figures dropping from 31,6 percent in 2019 to 20,4 percent, marking an 11 percent drop.
Fears are that unless due care is taken, Zimbabwe may record less than 20 percent of learners who get a C symbol or better for the first time since 1980, this is because 2021 had deadlier Covid-19 waves and disruptions compared to the previous year.
As it remains unclear when schools are opening, education lobbyists are calling for examinations to be pushed to the second or third month of 2022.
In an interview with The Sunday Mail, Education Coalition of Zimbabwe (ECOZI) acting national coordinator Mr Clemence Nhliziyo said running examinations this year, in the face of the present challenges, should be rendered out of the question.
The solution, Mr Nhliziyo said, is to deviate from the norm and adapt to the requirements of the new normal.
“I think practically, considering that the time for learning has been reduced as a result of lockdowns, examinations should be written around February or March to allow enough preparation. We are in a global health crisis. It is difficult to stick to old plans, there is nothing wrong with making adjustments to the way things work. We have to adapt,” said Mr Nhliziyo.
Indications are that most who are supposed to sit for examinations have not done much learning outside the first term which was cut short due to the pandemic, except for a few privileged learners whose families afford the internet.
At the same time extra lessons, which had potential to plug the gap left by inactivity, remain banned.
“There is a tendency to assume that only rural learners are excluded in online lessons. Even learners in urban areas are not accessing these lessons,” Mr Nhliziyo said.
To make that happen, there is a need for the strengthening of the social contract between Government and teachers.
“If you look at the issue, it is better for Government to sit down with teachers. There has to be an open discussion on how the new term will proceed. Everyone should understand that there should be focus on covering ground, without disruptions like strikes. So Government has to get all outstanding issues out of the way,” said Mr Nhliziyo.
Other observers posit that the challenges being faced by Zimbabwe in the education sector are not unique to the country, as the whole SADC region is facing a similar predicament.
Out of a possible 15 months, which learners should have spent in school since January 2020, Zimbabwe has only managed six broken down to three towards the end of last year and three from March to June this year when the country had its first term.
This means that in terms of learning there is a nine-month deficit.
Those who wrote their Ordinary and Advanced Level examinations last year had a comparative advantage in that they had learnt half of their two-year syllabus in 2019 with minimal disruptions.
This is not the case for the class of 2021, who only managed three months in a physical classroom last year.
The year 2020 was the last that an examination class was writing the old curriculum which was heavy on the reproduction of learnt content.
Those who are writing ZIMSEC examinations this year are confronted by a strong component dubbed the Continuous Assessment Learning Activities (CALA) which states that part of the mark is derived from application of knowledge. In normal times, the idea is noble but parents have questioned the insistence on its application during a stifling pandemic.
ZIMSEC, who manage national examinations in the country are proceeding with preparations.
The ZIMSEC board met last week and agreed to proceed with preparations, as they await direction from the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education.
“Our job as you know is to make preparations and we had a board meeting last week. We are on course in our preparations despite Covid-19 challenges,” the ZIMSEC Board Chairperson Professor Eddie Mwenje said.
The examination body’s public relations manager Ms Nicky Dhlamini said input from various stakeholders will be considered when the final dates for the 2021 examinations are announced.
“ZIMSEC is at the tail-end of the education cycle. In terms of students learning, that is under the purview of the parent Ministry. Our examination dates will be approved by Cabinet, before we announce them. All considerations will be taken into account before that happens,” she said.
Government has said it will take an evidence-based approach to examination scheduling.
Director of communications and advocacy in the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education Mr Taungana Ndoro told The Sunday Mail that the decision will be informed by the ongoing engagements with key players in education.
“We need to get guidance from ZIMSEC and other stakeholders, then we advise the President through Cabinet. He will make the final determination,” said Mr Ndoro.
He said the ministry is ready to listen to wisdom on which dates are best, even if it means that the exams spill into next year.
“Some examinations like practicals need learners to attend lessons physically, so we are going to listen to stakeholders. ZIMSEC has not yet released their timetable, they can only do so when the school calendar has been released. If they open around September, we will sit down with all stakeholders and see what the earliest possible time to have credible examinations is. If it happens in November, the same process will apply,” said Mr Ndoro.
He assured parents that the final decision will be made in the best interest of learners.
“Parents should not be afraid. We are going to be thorough in our decision making. We are not going to impose a date which would not have been born out of consultation from key stakeholders,” he said.
Cabinet recently set preparations for reopening in motion when it told schools and parents to start putting measures in place for the eventual return of academic activity.
However, the date is yet to be announced.
Predictions are that as the Covid-19 situation seems to be improving and the vaccination figures are rising, schools may reopen within the next few weeks.
The new term will be unique in that the Delta variant which is dominating Covid-19 cases in Zimbabwe and the world, now affects children.
This means that in the event of a fourth wave, which experts are already predicting, there may be a need to close schools quicker than in the past — bringing to the fore the question: Can exams be written this year?
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