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‘Education leaders must embrace positives from Covid-19 to deepen teaching, learning outcomes’

‘Education leaders must embrace positives from Covid-19 to deepen teaching, learning outcomes’

International examinations in Nigeria and Sub-Saharan Africa are increasingly gaining traction, driven chiefly by demand for foreign certifications and global standards recognition. JUAN VISSER, regional director for Sub-Saharan Africa at Cambridge Assessment International Education in this interview with KELECHI EWUZIE, speaks on how the organisation is leveraging collaboration with schools, universities, governments and key education organisations to boost the number of Outstanding Learners across Sub-Saharan Africa. Excerpt:

What are the biggest challenges facing Sub Saharan Africa when it comes to external examinations? How does the Cambridge international award help to address these?

The challenges vary from one African country to the other as with many regions globally. There is the challenge around distance and standards, but one of the biggest advantages of the Cambridge curriculum is that it allows learners, teachers to think. The standards set by Cambridge are the same globally and this means that teaching and learning standards in each country has to be on par for our schools. A core part of our curriculum is that learners are taught to be independent thinkers and apply knowledge gained.

So basically, we find that institutions of higher education tell us that learners that have studied via the Cambridge path are sought after by institution of higher education.

There are many universities that wish to increase their percentage of Cambridge learners because of the benefits of our study approach and the robustness of our examinations. This is because by studying Cambridge Curriculum, they have been exposed at a very young age to the process of starting to apply knowledge.

This process helps students to be able to think cross curricular and stand them in good stead to be a good fit when they actually go into higher education.

Read also: CAMA 2020: Encouraging but more reforms needed

The curriculum is designed so that it will be practical application based and also learner centered. We also have excellent support in terms of textbooks that backup our curricula printed by our partner the Cambridge University Press and several other publishers.

So having these background resources means that learners are able to get the necessary information and expertise that they need.

Obviously these materials are ably supported by the schools and I think the fact that learners do so well within Nigeria points to the excellent quality of schools that offer the Cambridge curriculum because schools have to go through a very rigorous process to become accredited.

Just like our examinations, it’s the same process for each individual school, if they are based in Nigeria, as anywhere else globally, it means that the schools are world-class.

Can you tell us about the Cambridge International examination awards? How have students from Nigeria performed since the inception of the awards?

Firstly, to provide a bit of background, Cambridge International operates in over 160 countries globally. We have more than10,000 schools around the world and the country with the largest number in Sub Saharan Africa is Nigeria with over 384 schools that offer the Cambridge curriculum.

It is an incredible feat as every year, Nigeria produces winners. The purpose of the outstanding Cambridge international learner awards is to recognise excellence.

We have very strict categories like Top in the world and Top in country. In some categories, we compare these learners to all other learners entered for the same Cambridge examination in schools globally.

We also compare with learners within Nigeria. We look at the performance of Nigerian schools as a whole. So, the candidates will be ranked against their peers. Since we offer an international curriculum and the same examination globally that the learner sits, what we do is that Cambridge can compare learners in different schools. This allows us to recognise the top achievers.

Again, what makes the process fantastic is that a learner sitting for the examination in a country like Singapore, England or the USA will be taking the same examination for any particular subject.

So getting Top in the World means that candidates have competed against the entire globe which is excellent and a very good showing for a very high number of students who actually have achieved this accolade.

I will not like to give a comparison of country by country, but I can say that Nigeria always produces a very high number of Outstanding Learners every year, which is excellent.

In the last five years, how would you assess the performance of students from Nigerian schools in the awards?

Well, as I said, we don’t give the actual ranking, but what we do is basically give the awards after the examination. However, we are aware that the marks are standardized. Once the marks are standardized, we are then able to assess which learners have got the highest marks in that subject globally, or within the individual country as the case may be.

We also make sure that there is a critical mass of examinations for that subject within that country. If it’s really low numbers within the country taking a specific subject, we will not issue and award for that subject.

Basically, learners would need to achieve a certain threshold grade. Therefore usually it could only be between learners that have got an A or A star grade are put against each other in other words, the very best performers.

How has the partnership with British council and other agencies helped improve schools, and also the students over the years?

You have touched on a very important point. In Nigeria, all our schools are registered via the British Council. So, the biggest benefit with that is the schools then have a local Point of Presence with British Council offices, in large cities including Lagos and Abuja.

So, there is a point of presence on ground. We also have an in-country representative who is based in Lagos and is our territory manager for Nigeria. We have people on ground that make sure the schools are served if they need assistance.

We also have global support systems in Cambridge, so they are able to link into them to receive accurate information. The partnership with the British Council meant we had people on the ground to ensure very strict standards of adherence with the British Council in many countries globally.

They operate as an associate for payments, they will ensure inspection of the schools, once inspections are completed, and they also ensure the school meets global standards. The British Council assists us to ensure that the school meets the necessary quality standards.

We have the new normal enforced upon by Coronavirus pandemic across the globe. How has that the pandemic impacted on your operation and what steps have you taken to ensure the smooth operation of examination going forward?

As you know, the new normal will be quite different to what we experienced. Cambridge as an organisation has been in operation for well over 100 years.

We have to learn to deal with difficult circumstances for example even during the Second World War our school examination then still took place. This puts the current pandemic into perspective. Cambridge, like most exams boards switched to an assessed grade system for the June 2020 examination series as the safety of our learners and school staff is paramount.

The grades were assessed by the teachers at the school and then forwarded to Cambridge for moderation very similar to the old systems that were used by many other Examination Boards because physical examinations were just not possible and also for the safety of learners.

Quite literally, we have to build the system from scratch, we did this in record time, almost like we were flying the airplane and building it at the same time. But in short, we have been able to ensure that learners impacted by COVID who were supposed to sit for examination in the June series have not been impacted. They will still be able to get grade results and will continue with further studies.

As COVID showed us we found certain innovation and ways of doing things as in any time of crisis using systems where we are able to adapt, this is some of the things we want to take forward such as offering online teacher training to our schools.

Our examination results have been released on 11th of August and then once we get through that, the next major target is running our November examination series. We plan to still run paper based physical examinations as per normal.

We will keep assessing the situation. One of the developments because of Covid-19 might be more use of digital resources in education as the world adapts. We should seek to keep the useful innovations that this time has created. For example: Cambridge will continue to run online teacher training supplemented by face to face teacher training.

Due to the Coronavirus, we have had to innovate, and we will retain the best innovations.

We will also publish a lot of support for our schools. We will extend support for schools and have an entire section on our website dedicated to teaching and learning so schools that are closed can still find support systems over there.

Some of our materials and systems been made freely available to our schools and learners. We have school online community tools for supporting real life teaching and learning webinars, online training resources as well as e-books from our Cambridge University Press publishing partner.

The next phase is we are looking at a series of assistance to schools when they return to learning. This support would come from Cambridge International, the British Council as well as Cambridge University Press.

We will be looking to work on our support systems, for example is how do you measure a learner’s readiness/progress who is just back after several months of not being at school?

From your experience over the years, what would you advise Africa leadership to boost the education system in the region?

In a nutshell, I will advise Africa leaders to embrace what has happened and see what learning’s they can take from these terrifying times. Covid-19 has happened, there is nothing we can do about it, rather leaders should ensure that they learn from it and try to keep teaching and learning going, even when schools are closed.

Essentially, African education leaders to embrace what is taking place and look for the positives which they can take from there and apply those learning. I know we will all come out of this Covid-19 pandemic stronger than ever.

Where do you see the Cambridge international examination awards in the next 5 years especially as it affects Nigeria?

I would see Nigeria within the next five years continuing to be a part of the educational systems on offer. Also, we will like to see closer cooperation and working with local examinations boards so we can understand what each other is doing.

We are open to such engagement and using the current circumstance to understand all the challenges that have occurred in other organisations. We continue to receive applications from schools in Nigeria at this time to be accredited to offer the Cambridge Pathway and we will be honoured to continue to be part of the educational landscape of Nigeria.

I’d like to see us moving from our current over 380 accredited schools in Nigeria to over 1000 during this period to be able to positively impact the lives of as many learners as possible. We appreciate the effort of all our school to keep learning active during this time. I pray that the global situation will return to normality by early 2021.