Monday, 9 March 2009

when a "distinction" just isn't good enough...

March 6th 2009

Rather a wasted day today, I’m afraid. As I’m walking to work I meet Béatrice, who tells me that Nyarusange school has rung and asked me not to come because they have a secteur heads’ meeting this morning. So that’s today’s school out of the running.

My second choice is Ngoma school, but in the end I don’t want to go there – it’s an expensive moto ride and I’ve already visited it during September last. In the office Claude ambushes me with what appears to be the annual parent committee minutes of one of our bigger secondary schools. The school’s crowing about its exam results and Claude wants me to check their figures. This eventually takes half the morning: and here’s why. The new grading system for Tronc Commun gives students four grades of pass – “Grand distinction”; “distinction”; “satisfaisant”; and “passable”. This means that around 96% of students in this particular school have passed, and around 80% in the district as a whole. OK, you say, so the secondary schools are doing well and this is a good result. Oh no, not in Rwanda. Students who pass Tronc Commun are eligible to go on to the second cycle of secondary school – the Rwandan equivalent of 6th form – and there are just not enough places for the number of children who have passed Tronc Commun. So we have to have another, arbitrary grading of pass/fail which will select those who can finish their secondary education.

And even this pass/fail measure isn’t simple enough. Either they’re trying to boost the proportion of girls in upper secondary, or else they’re tinkering around to match the number of boys and girls who pass to the number of boy and girl places in the schools. So boys pass if they get marks from 8 to 37, but girls are deemed to have passed if they get marks from 8 to 44. (The lower the mark, the better the result). These numbers are quite arbitrary; they don’t match the “distinction” etc grades at all. Some statistician seems to have calculated at national level the number of school places available, and then set that figure against the rank order of all candidates across the country. What it means in practice is that you could have two girls in your class, both with “distinction”, but because one has 1 more point in her subject marks she is selected and the other rejected. And you could have several boys with better marks than either of these two girls, but they are rejected because the bar is set higher for boys. It is grossly unfair, but seems to be accepted by absolutely everyone – schools, teachers, parents, children, and especially by the District Office. I blow a fuse to Claude but he just shrugs and tells me that’s how it is. What I feel really strongly is that they are putting such absolute faith in the accuracy and rigour of their exam marking system. Yet any of us involved in exams in the UK know that at best there’s about a 5% margin of accuracy in any public examination grade.

The end result is that Rwanda is squandering large numbers of young people who undoubtedly have the talent and guts to see through their education and help transform this little country, and all because people have absolute faith in a system which all of us Europeans can see is creaky and a lousy tool for selecting those who might eventually run the country.

So it turns out in the end that Karama Scool’s report to its parents is accurate. Fortunately, also, when I recalculate the results for all my secondary schools on the pass/fail basis, the schools which fall into the top four and bottom four are unchanged. This is important because I’ve already created certificates of commendation for the best four.

In the afternoon I fully intend to go and visit Nyabisindu tronc commun just up the road, but somehow that good intention evaporates. I also intend to go and see Raima at Ahazaza and show her some of my selection of Maths games and activities – she keeps on asking me for them. So I ring Raima to tell her I’m just on my way, only to discover she’s in Kigali for a meeting. So that’s the third planned school visit for today which doesn’t take place.

The sole piece of “proper” work I get done today is for VSO, not for the District. I finish my draft report for Charlotte and the VSO Programme Review; there are so many volunteers operating in Gitarama area that they have decided to make Muhanga one of their detailed case studies in their analysis of how well the whole volunteer system is working.

Saying what I’ve done is easy; saying how much it is changing practices in the schools is so much harder (if we go to a school and see some of our songs or games being used, is it because they use them all the time or because they feel obliged to trot them out for the visiting muzungus?). Saying whether I have changed things in the District Office is easier; I have undoubtedly shown them different ways of looking at issues and I think some of their thinking is starting to change. If I can wean them off their “praise and blame” culture to one of rewards and standards then I’ll have done a good job.

In the evening Tom comes home with a lot of picnic food, left overs from his visitors. In particular we have half a ton of carrot sticks which won’t last another day, so we set to and make a big batch of carrot and coriander soup.

Best thing about today – my report for VSO; venting my spleen on poor old Claude about the Rwandan exam system…..

Worst things – not getting out to a school. Claude STILL hasn’t paid my latest slice of rent to Tom and it’s getting embarrassing. I’ve told Claude that unless he gets it paid I’ll have to leave……. Claude just laughs nervously.

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