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Exam scams can’t be taken lightly

News that our public examination papers may be getting leaked to candidates on a systematic basis probably came as no surprise to many. Exam leakage is becoming a chronic problem, and we are now realising that it may be a well-organised activity. What is alarming, however, is how unalarmed we are by this. This one thing could ruin all our futures.

Let me admit first that I am no fan of examinations. I didn’t do too badly at them (most of the time) but I think they are an appalling ordeal to put a young child through. Think about it: children who should be enjoying and discovering life are forced to sit at a desk and prove their right to progress in life. Because the world is the way it is, a young person’s future is condensed into the hour or two it takes to complete a written exam.

If you succeed, doors open to you and a privileged life may lie ahead of you. If you succeed, your personal brand will precede you: ‘Achiever’ will be marked on your CV. Most people will respect you and give you a chance.

If you fail, you will find most doors and opportunities closing. Your personal brand will precede you: ‘Failure’ will be stamped on your forehead. Most people will disparage you and throw you into the lower strata of life, from which it will take enormous personal determination and initiative to re-emerge.

All because of a hot afternoon in November, when you picked up your pen and opened the paper before you. You could have been unwell, emotionally strained, unready; the world doesn’t care. You could have performed very differently on a different day; the world doesn’t care. All that matters is what you did on the designated day. If you messed up, too bad. You are a ‘D’ forever, and your life will also in all likelihood receive a ‘D’ rating.

Enlightened education regimes have moved on from this high-stress nonsense. They favour continuous learning and continuous assessment. They do not put children through the examination wringer at tender ages. They give kids many little chances to prove themselves, not just one big one. They emphasise the spirit of enquiry, not the ability to regurgitate material under pressure.

Here, we do not live in an enlightened society, and our views on education are suitably retarded. For us, education is ‘reading’: you cram as many things into your head as it can hold, and then you spew out as much of it as you can remember on a set day and time. The result of that examination is then the key to the rest of your life.

Accepting that our public education system may stay this way for a while, we could at least run the examinations properly! What is the point of an exam, after all? Simply to provide a filtering mechanism for institutions and employers, a signal of relative worth to society. If that filter is broken, and if that signal is being manipulated by crooks, then the whole system collapses. For examination-centred education to be of any value whatsoever, the examination system must be rock-solid, beyond reproach.

So what happens if you have headmasters who see themselves as shopkeepers? What happens when children know there is an easier way to get the grade than to work for it? What happens if it’s just as easy to buy a degree in some shady shop in River Road, as it is to receive it from a vice-chancellor? All the incentives to put in the toil and effort are gone.

What happens when you work diligently to acquire knowledge, but your neighbour’s father works diligently to acquire the exam paper in advance? Can we not see what is going to happen: that all the natural shortcut-takers, all those morally challenged, all the wastrels and racketeers will get the best grades? That all the wrong people will rise to the top?

If you are selecting students for scholarships, which piece of paper are you going to rely on? If you are an employer, how will you view the next degree or certificate that lands on your desk?

We have to treat these exam rackets with the utmost seriousness. We have to take harsh, punitive action on those who perpetuate this wrongdoing: they must pay big-time, to send a message to all those who try to do this again. Rogue administrators and headmasters should be jailed, and rogue schools should be closed down. Anything less will not work. When this kind of disease strikes it has to be purged out of the system, otherwise the entire organism might be on its knees. We are in danger of ignoring this scam just like all our other scams, but this might be the one that history reveals finally undid us a generation later.

Actually, looking at the average quality of leadership in the land, I wonder how far back exam scams really started in Kenya…

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