Zimsec’s Loss is Cambridge’s Gain

The Standard
By Vusumuzi Sifile
29th November 2009

THOUSANDS of “O” Level and “A” Level students have found solace in the more expensive Cambridge International Examinations (CIE) system after frustration with the perennial bungling by the Zimbabwe Schools Examinations Council (Zimsec). Almost all trust schools and private colleges have for a while been using Cambridge which charges US$40 for an “O”- Level subject and US$70 for an “A”- Level subject.

But the interest in Cambridge has spread to other students outside trust schools and private colleges prompting the British Council to open centres in Bulawayo, Mutare and Harare to conduct the examinations.

British Council director Rajiv Bendre on Friday said in the October/November examinations, more than 800 students sat for the examinations at the centres. “For the first time since the inception of the council in Zimbabwe, we are running the General Certificate of Education (GCE) exams for Cambridge. We are just trying to help,” Bendre said.

Joseph Fushayi, the Examinations Manager at the council said by offering Cambridge, they were “by no means undermining Zimsec”.

“All we are doing is just providing an alternative. For us the most important thing is affordability of the exams to ordinary Zimbabweans,” Fushayi said.

Bendre said they were exploring opportunities for initiating co-operation between Zimsec and Cambridge, which at some point positioned local exams among the best in Africa.

“When Zimsec was set up, there was lots of co-operation with Cambridge,” Bendre said.

“The thinking was that since Zimsec was experiencing challenges, Cambridge could come in with some technical assistance.

“On our part, we helped rejuvenate that relationship between Zimsec and Cambridge.

“In August we facilitated a visit to Zimsec by two officials from the CIE, and they came up with a list of needs for Zimsec, which were then discussed.”

This caused the current slump in the number of candidates who registered for local examinations, which started on Thursday.

While the understanding has for all along been that most students failed to raise enough money to pay Zimsec examination fees, it has since emerged that a significant number of them actually opted to take the CIE.

The CIE replaced the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate, which Zimbabwe used until the late 1990s.

“Most of them registered for Cambridge after uncertainty continued to shroud the Zimsec process,” said an official close to the operations of Zimsec.

“And when Zimsec started registering candidates, they were charging almost the same amounts as those institutions running Cambridge examinations, so many candidates did not see the use of writing through Zimsec.”

Over the last two weeks the chaos at Zimsec has been so glaring after officials failed to respond to questions on the examination process, raising concerns they were running out of options — and answers — to restore credibility to the public exam system.

The institution’s director Happy Ndanga’s mobile phone went unanswered.

Spokesperson Ezekiel Pasipamire was also not in a position to comment, saying he would “never talk to The Standard again”, without giving reasons.

He is still to respond to questions he requested to be faxed to him over a week ago.

But the Minister of Education, Senator David Coltart insisted the situation was under control, although a lot still needs to be done.

“We are not going to restore the credibility of Zimsec overnight, it’s a process,” he said.

“Next year, we will do a curriculum review, subject to money being available. We need to restore public confidence in Zimsec.”

Coltart said he did not see anything wrong with pupils opting for Cambridge examinations, saying it was just a sign parents were exercising their freedom of choice.

“I believe that parents should have freedom of choice.

“Those who want Cambridge and can afford to do so — they are free to do so.

“But those who cannot afford Cambridge should also have a good alternative,” Coltart said.

In September, the National Educational Advisory Board (NEAB) released a report that encouraged the government to “support the revamping of the Zimbabwe Schools Examinations Council urgently”.

Sources at Zimsec said at the moment the situation was so chaotic it was “impossible” for the process – which includes the setting, writing and marking of examinations – to be completed on time because of issues of remuneration for invigilators and markers, as well as logistical challenges like the availability of space and transport.

But Coltart was adamant on Friday that marking would be completed in January.

Last week he pleaded with teachers to donate their services as invigilators during the examinations.

Zimsec charges US$10 for an “O” — Level subject and US$20 for an “A” Level subject.