Professor Yormah Revisits the 6-3-4-4 System of Education

Professor Yormah Revisits the 6-3-4-4 System of Education

The 6-3-4-4 System of Education Debate – A luta continua

Editor’s Note:  The following article was written in 2018 and is being published as part of a pending virtual conference aimed at improving student performance in the WASSCE at Centennial Secondary School, Mattru Jong.

Professor-Yormah-Revisits-the-6-3-4-4-System-of-Education

Dr. Thomas B. R. Yormah

While the first set of human ‘guinea pigs’ are preparing to take their long-overdue school version of the WASSC Examinations under the 6-3-4-4 regime, I find it apt to republish a slightly modified version of a piece I published about one year ago (under the caption “My Take on the Newly Introduced 6-3-4-4 System of Education in Sierra Leone”) in an attempt to keep alive the debate as to the expediency of the Government of Sierra Leone’s prescription that changed the school system from the former 6-3-3-4/5/6 to the present 6-3-4-4/5/6.

The 5/6 refers to the 5 and 6 years the engineering and medicine students take to graduate at the University of Sierra Leone.

It is to be also noted that the extension of senior secondary schooling by one year can have devastating consequences on those families where the breadwinners are in the twilight of their working lives as they may retire while their children who ought to have graduated will still be in university demanding fees and upkeep against the background of the attendant loss of child education perks of the retired breadwinner.

Concerns have also been muted about the vulnerability of female teenagers to unwanted pregnancies during the protracted and confused period leading to the WASSC examination at the end of the 4th year of senior secondary school. I understand those “6-3-4-4 babies” (some have called them other names that I wouldn’t want to print here) have started coming off the conveyor belt.

By the time the Professor Gbamanja Commission, which inspired the present Government of Sierra Leone to introduce the current 6-3-4-4/5/6 system of education, was set up, there were already severe concerns in education circles about the challenges the former 6-3-3-4 system was facing as indicated by the abysmal performance of our school candidates in the various public examinations.

There was already in place a 6-3-3-4 Committee that was charged to look into these challenges and make recommendations concerning the plausible solutions to these challenges. I recall that the late Principal of Government Model Secondary School, Mr. Patrick Brown, and other seasoned educationists were members of that committee which I am told was strongly supported by UNICEF.

However, this committee was swiftly sidelined by the new Minister, who instead constituted the Professor Gbamanja Commission specifically charged to look into and make recommendations to address the causes of the poor performance of our (especially) school candidates in public examinations.

To be fair to the Gbamanja Commission, much, if not most, of the findings and recommendations it contains are not new; these are ideas already circulating within educational circles, mainly arising from the various brainstorming sessions at multiple forums, including within the university.

The Commission collates, synthesizes, and distills these ideas into a beautiful report. To refresh my memory, I requested copies of the Commission report and the White Paper from the Chairman of the Commission and another member of the Commission, having failed to get them from the Government Bookshop. Still, I have yet to receive those copies up to conclude this piece.

Therefore, I cannot tell whether the report contains advice on the pros and cons, i.e., the ramifications (such as the increased number of classrooms, teachers, etc.). I expected that in the present globalized world where best practices abound, the debate on the pros and cons that attend this fundamental shift in education policy would have involved more players and should have been subjected to a validation process involving all stakeholders.

When the Government of Sierra Leone was in the throes of introducing the 6-3-3-4 system of education and Professor Newman-Smart was given the odious task of selling the idea to stakeholders, some of us cautioned, while welcoming the idea, that the new system is very demanding on resources needed to enable the teachers and other stakeholders to make it succeed and that there had to be the will to make adequate resources available for its effective implementation.

That point was crucial because we were emerging from a long war and were facing severe resource mobilization challenges. I believe the lack of adequate resources and weaknesses in the implementation strategy has bedeviled the 6-3-3-4 system, manifested by years of poor performance in public examinations.

Of the recommendations of the Gbamanja Commission that calling for the extension of the duration of the Senior Secondary School by one additional year is the one whose implementation has caused the most significant concern and disquiet among stakeholders.

Implementing this recommendation by the government would imply that the pupil-to-teacher contact time is the most crucial factor that adversely impacts the performance of our candidates in the WAEC and other public examinations. This, to me, is a fallacy.

But even supposing that this was the case, why were private schools that keep their pupils in school for 7½-ish hours per day lumped together with the 2-shift public (government) schools that support their pupils in school for only 4½-ish hours?

The idea of looking for solutions to address the causes of poor performance of our school candidates in external examinations was a laudable one for which Minister Bah must be commended; it is, however, the lack of comprehensive/holistic and strategic thinking that went into the implementation of the recommendation to extend the Senior Secondary School education that I find problematic.

I believe a conference to consult all stakeholders (representatives of School Principals, teachers, academics and administrators of tertiary institutions, parents, education NGOs, etc.) ought to have been called to brainstorm the pros and cons to inform and guide the policy crafting process properly.

The idea of an extended senior secondary school program – the 6-3-4-4 system seems to have been borrowed from Ghana but was implemented in Sierra Leone when Ghana had reverted to the traditional 6-3-3-4 system. I am told that the reversal may have been politically motivated, but I don’t have those facts.

The fact, however, is that the coverage of the WASSCE syllabus for Ghanaian candidates is slightly more comprehensive than that for the rest of the WAEC communities of Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and The Gambia. The Ghana syllabus is more like the former GCE Advanced Level syllabus obtained for all WAEC member countries. This is the case for the science subjects, although I would like to believe it applies to all issues.

It, therefore, made sense for Ghana to keep their SS pupils in school for an additional year to enable them to cover this extended syllabus. The fact is that Ghana has now reverted to the traditional 3-year duration for the Senior Secondary program, even with their comprehensive syllabus. Although I have now been completely cut off from the WAEC family (a family I was very much a part of for about ten years), I want to believe Sierra Leone is presently the only WAEC country implementing the 6-3-4-4 system.

I have just been told by a former colleague Council Member of WAEC (who visited the Fourah Bay College campus this afternoon) that last year, Ghana presented two sets of candidates from both the 6-3-4-4 and the 6-3-3-4 streams and that the best WASSCE candidate in West Africa as awarded by the Excellence Awards of the WAEC Endowment Fund came from the latter (i.e., the 6-3-3-4) stream.

We cannot improve the performance of our public examination candidates by simply extending senior secondary schooling while leaving all the associated parameters intact; in fact, we do not need to advance education at that level if only we strategically and effectively address these related parameters. So, what strategies need to be adopted to properly teach the WAEC SS syllabus within the traditional 3-year duration? 

One of the most conspicuous scars of our civil war lies in the education sector and is manifested by the inadequacy of teaching infrastructure – physical and human. The success of the last government is remarkably increasing school enrolment at the primary and junior secondary levels leading to a sluggish/warped cascading of this increased enrolment to the tertiary levels has exacerbated the absence of physical infrastructure in schools. This development has forced the introduction of the two-shift system of attending classes, which was unheard of before the war in most parts of this country.

The migration of schoolteachers to safety in foreign countries without conflicts and from the classroom to other vocations in search of better means of livelihood provided an added dimension. The result has been a significantly reduced teacher-to-pupil contact time. However, this decimated contact time can be strategically used by teachers by inspiring the pupils to do a good amount of work at home, where they now spend the bulk (about 80%) of their 24-hour day.

All lessons covering the fundamental principles must be followed by assignments on exercises that help hone these principles, and these can be done at home or in libraries. Giving students grants is a perfect way of keeping them constantly on their toes and getting them to inculcate the habit of working on their own instead of continually being spoon-fed. Of course, assignments also put a lot of pressure on teachers who must mark these assignments, record the marks and return the scripts to the pupils to enable revisions.

This pressure is naturally bound to ripple on to the senior teachers who head the subject teams and the Principals who must ensure that this robust regime functions well. This is precisely what the 6-3-3-4 system was designed to achieve; it emphasizes continuous assessment. A collateral advantage is that given that ‘an idle mind is the devil’s workshop,’ a pupil that is always on their toes with his work will have little time to engage in obnoxious extracurricular activities such as addiction to computer and internet games, WhatsApp and other social media apps, movies, premiership football, Mercury and Lotto lotteries, etc.

True, this regime that ensures that teachers are always on their toes is very demanding on the teacher’s time and energy – just as it is on the pupil’s. The result is that the time the teacher uses typically to engage in alternative livelihood endeavors (“Mami-poker”) is subsumed or ‘usurped’ in the official teaching engagements, making the teacher committed to his teaching job.

Naturally, this level of commitment must come at a price, which means that the teacher must be adequately paid to forgo moonlighting to ensure this level and quality of loyalty. This then leads to the other factors that impact the performance of pupils.

Other ways of strategically using the available time to successfully teach the WASSCE syllabus within the 6-3-3-4 timeframe at 2-shift public schools include:

  • Running schools on Saturdays vide supra for how this can be achieved without cramping time available to students.

 

  • Each of the two shifts should be made to attend school for 9 hours (8 Am to 5 PM), including lunch breaks on alternate days. Taking cognizance of Saturday classes, each of the two shifts will attend school for three days a week, amounting to at least (9hrs × three days = 27hrs – 3hrs for lunch breaks =) 24 hours of teaching time per week as compared to the present 22½ (4½ hours per day for five school days) hours. This will ensure savings in transportation costs as the pupils will now pay fares to travel to school and back in three instead of 5 days. The alternate days that the pupils will not be in school will be spent doing assignments at home; the teachers will spend that time marking schemes, reading to keep abreast of/her subject, and preparing their lessons. Teachers must not be allowed to teach in both shifts, which will hurt their job.

 

  • Cutting down on the duration of the long vacations by about a half – to 4-6 weeks; since the pupils and teachers will now be spending half of the school time at home, they will no longer now need very long vacations.

There is no gainsaying that no matter how much time is allocated for teaching by extending the school years by 1,2,3 or even four extra years, the WASCE syllabus will never be entirely and effectively taught if:

  • The teacher is not committed to their work
  • The teacher is not made to work under a strict supervisory regime
  • The teacher lacks the requisite teaching capacity

These factors are interrelated. Teachers can be made to be committed to their work by proper motivation in terms of decent financial rewards for their services and other enabling working conditions. A critical enabling condition is capacity building through regular training and in-service programs, making for effective teaching and upward professional mobility.

A teacher can only teach what they know; therefore, no matter how much time is allowed to conduct a syllabus, the teaching capacity of that teacher will significantly limit the benefit of that time. Low teaching capacity is perhaps the greatest bane/draw-back of the teaching profession.

Our schools are plagued with such low teaching capacity, which, if not addressed no matter what other measures are adopted, the performance of our school pupils will never be markedly improved. This is especially the case for the science subjects (where we find in several schools that teachers of WASSCE chemistry, biology, and physics are graduates of Agricultural Science or Food Science or Environmental Science or Higher Teachers Certificate (HTC) holders of these subjects) and English Language (where a good number of WASSCE teachers are either graduates in Linguistics or HTC holders of English Language).

This is precisely what the Access Programme at Fourah Bay College, in its pristine form, was designed to address and explains why this programme was confined to the basic science subjects and English Language and was meant to be temporary. The universities and other tertiary education institutions where there has been evidence of illegal admission of pupils and where these students manage to navigate their way to graduation is part of this problem.

Because these aberrations of graduates are employed as teachers and unleashed on the poor pupils, they destroy the aptitude and zest for learning and, therefore, the future of our school children and, by extension, the country. But the universities can also be part of the solution by conducting in-service training programmes for teachers in critical areas of the WASCCE syllabus on a platform similar to what was obtained for the Access Programme.

It is to be noted in this regard that the Faculty of Pure & Applied Sciences, in conjunction with the Department of Educational Studies at Fourah Bay College, has now mounted a B. Sc. Education in the basic sciences (Chemistry, Physics, Biology, and Mathematics) programme to graduate teachers robust enough to teach the WASSCE syllabus in these subjects comfortably. The government is called upon to fully support this program by offering Grants-in-Aid to students enrolled in this program and automatic employment on completion with attractive salaries.

It must also be noted that no matter how much time, motivation (in terms of increased salaries and other conditions of service), and training we give our teachers, it is part of human nature that many teachers will still not perform their jobs effectively in the absence of a robust supervisory and monitoring regime involving school principals, the Inspectorate Division of the Ministry of Education, Science & Technology, Boards of Schools and the Parent-Teacher Associations.

The principal of the school my son attends is commonly known by the nickname “Madam”; I guess the real name is “La dame de for” – meaning “Iron Lady” due to her rigorous disciplinarian attitude coupled with a solid commitment to work. Most schools that do well in public examinations indeed have principals possessing similar profiles; on the contrary, schools where candidates do not usually do well have principals with laissez-faire and a carefree attitude to work.

School Principals (and their Vices/Deputies) are supposed to spend much of their time going around classrooms with timetables and staff attendance registers to ensure that teachers do their work and round staffrooms sniffing for teachers who are in the habit of malingering and dodging work.

I posit that the contract of school principals must contain a performance clause that should help determine their tenure. A key indicator of performance must be the level of implementation of the pupils in public examinations. The assessment of performance must be very fair and transparent. It must be left in the hands of the school Boards, which must be allowed to operate without undue interference from the Ministry of Local Government authorities. The Boards themselves must not be populated by the principal or the minister’s sycophants and cronies. The Boards must have robust standing Visitation Committees that must visit schools unannounced at least once every term to sniff for potential areas of weaknesses and raise the proverbial ‘red flags’ for intervention.

During my years as a member of the Board of the Albert Academy, I invariably opted for membership in the Visitation Committee because of the strategic impact I knew its function could have on the quality of teaching and learning. Unfortunately, however, that committee did not function as robustly as expected. The Inspectors of schools in the regions must themselves be constantly monitored by the Education Headquarters in New England to ensure they do their work effectively (one of the schools I attended and one I shall be eternally proud to be associated with – the Centennial Secondary School at Mattru-Jong in Bonthe District – was utterly ruined and run down by the previous school administration under the watchful eyes of the District Education Officer.

It is also clear that no matter how comprehensively a teacher covers their syllabus, the candidates may still fail to pass the examinations if the strategies for passing a test are not also taught. Experienced teachers have garnered such systems over the years. Still, they are also usually embedded in the Chief Examiners Reports, which WAEC releases in the wake of every public examination during my tenure as a Council Member of WAEC; it was reported that a good many principals were reluctant to buy and use them.

The Chief Examiners Report is a post-mortem done on every examination and gives details of the reasons for the quality of performance of the candidates and is, therefore, a crucial teaching aid that every teacher preparing candidates for all WAEC examinations must possess.

Some of the strategies that can markedly improve the performance of candidates in any study at any level include disciplining the candidates to very strictly follow the rubrics/instructions on the question papers, learning to fully understand the question before answering, giving focussed answers to questions rather than wasting time engaging in verbosity by writing facts that are not relevant to the question asked, managing the examination time wisely in distributing the time among the questions to be answered, attempting those questions the candidate is most comfortable with before going to those questions that the candidate either does not know or is in doubt about so that in cases where the candidate runs out of time towards the end of the examination it is those questions that were not likely to garner much marks that will remain unanswered, etc., etc.

A crucial strategy for improving the performance of school candidates in WAEC and other public examinations is to ensure that the pupils are thoroughly screened during their progress from JSS1 to JSS3 and from SS1 to SS3 so that only those pupils that are fully prepared to take the public examinations are put forward as candidates for public examinations.

This will require a very vigilant, disciplined, and robust assessment regime in our schools. The policy of government paying fees for all school candidates in all public examinations has served us very well in our post-conflict management of education delivery; it was one of the critical factors that contributed to increased enrollment. However, it is clear that this policy has been abused by the candidates themselves as well as by school principals; candidates who do not have the slightest chance of passing the examinations are allowed to take them as a form of rehearsal (“testily”) simply because monies for the payment of the examination fees do not come directly from their parents or guardians.

These are the candidates that fail in the droves and ideally must not be allowed to retake the examinations as school candidates for which the government must pay. Still, some do so with the connivance of unscrupulous Principals. Some years ago, during the twilight of the tenure of the last government, I suggested at a WAEC meeting that mock examinations be taken so that the government would sponsor only candidates who pass the mock; that suggestion has not been taken on board to date because I suspect some people believe, perhaps rightly so, that while mounting the mock examination will itself cost money it is very likely that the examiners will abuse it.

In conclusion, I submit that a more holistic approach be taken towards addressing the challenges of poor performance of our pupils in public examinations and that unless and until issues such as strategic use of teaching time by teachers and pupils, teaching capacity enhancement through regular training, teacher motivation with improved remuneration, adequate supervision of teachers, etc. no extension of teaching time at the Senior Secondary or indeed any other level will yield the required dividends. Such a measure will be tantamount to punishing the pupils for no or tiny fault of theirs.

Author:  Dr. Thomas B. R. Yormah is an Associate Professor of Chemistry at Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone.  You can reach the author at tom_yormah@yahoo.com or by phone at +232 76626488 or +232 30230500

Dr. Yormah has worked for and with WAEC for 20+ years as an Examiner for A’Level Chemistry. He is a Member of the International Examinations Committee of WAEC (the clearinghouse of all examination matters), representing Sierra Leone.

Dr. Yormah is also a Member of the International Administration & Finance (A&F) Committee (which supervises and monitors the operations of WAEC and reports only to the Governing Council). Member of the Budget Sub-Committee of the International A&F Committee and ended my tour as Chairman of this subcommittee. Member of the International Human Resource – Appointments and Promotions Subcommittee of the International A&F Committee.