Are Examinations Really Necessary?


Examinations fiascoes, with increasingly sophisticated leakages, have become a permanent feature in the Kenya public education. Hands have been wringed and fingers pointed in all directions, except at the institution of the examination itself. Vintage educationalists like Christopher Dawson (1889-1970) remarked way back in 1960:

The result has been an intellectual anarchy imperfectly controlled by the crude methods of the examination system and of payment by results. The mind of the student is overwhelmed and dazed by the volume of new knowledge which is being accumulated by the labour of specialists, while the necessity for using education as a stepping stone to a profitable career leaves him little time to stop and think. And the same is true of the teacher, who has become a kind of civil servant tied to a routine over which he can have little control.[1]

What Dawson actually pointed out is that the claim by examination boards to be setting minimum standards is fraudulent. Exit examinations, whether by the State or by private boards, cannot but set maximum standards, beyond which no teacher dares to go, under pain of losing first the attention of his students and then his job.

Students become crammers the moment they realise that all is asked of them is spewing the right information. A Form IV who sat, and passed, his Physics exam, could not answer the question: “What is the unit of force?”

I had the opportunity of testing the crudity of the examination system in 1974, as invigilator for the then CPE exam at a semi-rural primary school well within the boundaries of Nairobi City Council. During lunch break I browsed through some English Composition answers, which I copied in my own hand (there were no laptops then). Question 1 said: “Study carefully the four pictures below which tell a story. Tell the story in your own words.” Some sample answers follow.

A 16 year-old boy started:

Moati aitR CBMA Bawud dnctD

Atm Raab rimd Rwaf firk.

There were 27 lines of it. Another boy, age undeclared, wrote:

Tell the story athe mthe mthe zathe

the man zathe mthe athe amthe mathe nathe

and so on for another 42 lines. The girls wrote actual English words, but randomly. A 12 year-old wrote:

A about a story. one day there was a man and woman. that man he was asked the woman about her home. one woman.

There were lines and lines of such. Very few wrote intelligible sentences.

I have been reflecting on those answers ever since. Those candidates were 100% illiterate, without their teachers’ noticing it for the entire duration of primary school.

In 1986 the Kenya Government set up a Presidential Working Party on Education and Manpower Training for the Next Decade and Beyond. I sent some suggestions, for which I was thanked and my contribution acknowledged, but the system continued along the old rut until this large chicken came home to roost at the beginning of 2008.

In 1986 the communication revolution was ten years in the future. Now that it has taken off fully fledged it is wreaking its own havoc in the examination system, and not only in Kenya. A British panic-stricken columnist wrote:

Thousands of children may be using phones to send text messages to friends for answers or to access the internet during tests. Others download data on to MP3 players smuggled into exam halls. […] staff must take drastic action to stop sophisticated cheats undermining the examinations systems altogether. Teachers are asked to consider using a Faraday cage […] in which metal is built into the walls to block electromagnetic waves. Airport-style security scanners should also be installed […] large universities should fingerprint students […] Digital technologies have brought equity to cheating. Access is no longer for the knowing few but is there for the majority.[2]

One cannot help asking the obvious question: if the entire Vatican Library can be carried in one’s shirt pocket, what is the point of examining people as if knowledge can only be had from Gutenberg-inspired 15th century technology? More pointedly: before installing airport-style security scanners and Faraday cages, wouldn’t it be more sensible scrapping the examination system with all its crudity?

The columnist’s alarmed tone is ludicrous enough, but I have seen a better example.

For 20 years a professional structural engineer signed and supervised dozens of important projects, restoring historical monuments in several cities of two European countries. Until a diligent bureaucrat of where he had restored no less than the ancient city walls, uncovered that the man had sat and passed a lone exam in the University he had frequented 20 years earlier.

The newspaper that reported the “misdemeanour” did not spare epithets: it called him “bogus professional,” “false engineer,” “self-styled rampant engineer,” and the like. But the structures he supervised are still there. None has collapsed. Our man knew what he was doing, despite the fact that he rubber-stamped his papers with a seal belonging to an architect who had never practiced. In other words, he did what Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci (he of the Code, who was a military architect besides being a painter) and Sir Christopher Wren had done: constructing imposing structures without a scrap of paper “certifying” that he was not “jejune of the most elementary notions of statics” as our journalist raved. What the man had done in fact was to prove the utter irrelevance of credentials, certificates, diplomas, degrees and other bureaucrat-supported (and supporting) paperwork.

Besides the communication revolution, two more phenomena are slowly spelling the doom not only of the examinations system, but of the traditional school altogether.

The first is the practically complete divorce of the world of academics from that of work. The reason is the increasing disappearance of the fixed ‘job.’ No academia-issued piece of paper guarantees a ‘job’ anymore, anywhere. What is more, First Class Honours degree holders are sacked, not hired, simply because employers are not ready to pay the higher salaries demanded on the grounds of possessing a certain piece of paper.

The second is the growing popularity of homeschooling, or more drastically un-schooling, where instead of relying on textbooks

The natural learner participates with parents and others in learning together. A child may learn reading to further an interest about history or other cultures, or math skills by operating a small business or sharing in family finances. They may learn animal husbandry keeping dairy goats or meat rabbits, botany tending a kitchen garden, chemistry understanding the operation of firearms or the internal combustion engine, or politics and local history by following a zoning or historical-status dispute. […] the unschooled child initiates these learning activities.[3]

Homeschooling and un-schooling have no fixed curricula, no exams and no crowded classrooms. For a family with four children of school age, the savings from schooling expenses match the loss of one parent’s salary. The exercise becomes viable. Field trips, difficult and expensive in formal schooling, are routine in home schooling, where to spend a morning watching birds or reading maps is standard practice.

The Kenya MPs limited homeschooling, but as Victor Hugo said a century ago, “nothing can stop an idea whose time has come.” It can be predicted that homeschooling will return with a vengeance.

Back to the communication revolution, internet is dealing one deadly blow after another not only to the examination system as already seen, but also to old-fashioned schooling as such, to the mainstream press, the universities, research, and to intellectual, historical and political humbug.

Internet will not spell the demise of the traditional school; it will force it to re-invent itself. The school of the future will be a provider of facilities complementing home schooling. Teachers will rent classrooms, laboratories, gardens, workshops, theatres, etc. Parents will pay the teachers directly, and teachers the school. A poor teacher will not be able to hide, or neglect his duty. He will simply have to change profession. Only real teachers need apply, not drillers paid to “finish the syllabus” so as to “get best results”.

For the past few years another welcome phenomenon has been making inroads into the present obsolete, inefficient school system: Seeds of Gold, the weekly agricultural extract of the Daily Nation newspaper.

Combined with cellular telephony, the articles have redirected attention to farming as the mainstay of the economy, enticing hundreds if not thousands of certificate holders, including graduates, away from office “jobs” to the joys of the productive countryside. Seeds of Gold shows that mixed farming, spitefully dubbed “subsistence agriculture” is in fact up to 20 times more productive per unit area than agribusiness. And with the knowledge picked up at school, Form IV leavers will not find it necessary to go earn a “degree” in university. Scientific farming will provide them with an income, earlier and higher than “office jobs” can.


[1] The Crisis of Western Education, Sheed & Ward, 1960 p. 119.

[2] Graeme Paton, Exams may be held in metal-lined rooms to combat cheats, Weekly Telegraph 13-19 December 2006 p.5. Emphasis mine.

[3] Wikipedia, voice HOMESCHOOLING


AUTHOR: Den Anoisíes (Email: [email protected] ; Follow on Twitter: @Den_Anoisies)


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