Juan Visser is the Regional Director for Sub-Saharan Africa at Cambridge Assessment International Education. In this interview with IYABO LAWAL, Visser talks about the Cambridge International examination awards, how Nigerian schools have fared, and how African leaders can better position the sector for the global stage.
What is Cambridge International examination awards all about?
CAMBRIDGE International operates in over 160 countries globally. We have more than 10,000 schools around the world and the country with the largest number in Africa is Nigeria, with over 384 schools offering the Cambridge curriculum. Nigeria produces winners every year.
The purpose of the outstanding Cambridge international learner awards is to recognise and promote excellence. We have very strict categories like “Top in the World” and “Top in Country.” In some categories, we compare these learners to others who registered for the same Cambridge examination in schools globally.
We also compare learners in Nigeria. We look at the performance of Nigerian schools as a whole, and candidates are ranked against their peers. Since we offer an international curriculum and the same examination globally, 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 United States will be taking the same examination for any particular subject.
So, getting “Top in the World” means that candidates 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 the country by country, but I can say that Nigeria always produces a very high number of outstanding learners every year, which is excellent.
How would you assess the performance of students from Nigerian schools in the awards in the last five years?
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 standardised. Once the marks are standardised, 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 an award for that subject.
Basically, learners would need to achieve a certain threshold grade. Usually, it could only be between learners that have got an A or A star grade that are put against each other; in other words, the very best performers.
What are the biggest challenges facing Sub-Saharan Africa in external examinations and 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 a challenge around distance and standards, but one of the biggest advantages of the Cambridge curriculum is that it allows learners and teachers to think. The standards set by Cambridge are the same globally and this means that teaching and learning standards in each country have 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 highly sought after.
There are many universities wishing to increase their percentage of Cambridge learners because of the benefits of our study approach and the robustness of our exams. This is because by studying the 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.
The curriculum is designed so that it will be practical application-based, and also learner-centred. We also have excellent support in terms of textbooks that backup our curricula. 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.
How has the partnership with the British Council and other agencies help improve schools and students over the years?
In Nigeria, all our schools are registered through the British Council. So, the biggest benefit with that is the schools have a local point of presence with British Council offices in large cities, including Lagos and Abuja.
We also have global support systems in Cambridge, and so they are able to link them to receive accurate information. The partnership with the British Council means we have people on the ground to ensure very strict standards of adherence with the British Council in many countries globally. They inspect the schools and also ensure they meet global standards.
How has the pandemic impacted your operations and what steps have you taken to ensure the smooth operation of examination going forward?
Cambridge as an organisation has been in operation for well over 100 years. We have to learn to deal with difficult circumstances. For example, during the Second World War, our school examination then still took place. This puts the current pandemic into perspective. Cambridge, like most examination boards, switched to an assessed grade system for the June 2020 exam series as the safety of our learners and school staff is paramount.
The grades were assessed by the teachers at the school and 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. We have been able to ensure that learners, who were supposed to sit for the 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 a result of the pandemic, we came up with certain innovations and new ways of doing things. 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 instance, 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 are being made freely available to 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. We will be looking to work on our support systems, for example, how do you measure a learner’s readiness/progress who is just back after several months of not being at school?
How can African leaders boost the education system in the region?
I will advise African leaders to embrace what has happened, see what they can learn from it, and try to keep teaching and learning going even when schools are closed. They should embrace what is taking place and look for the positives, which they can take from there and apply to learn.
Where do you see the Cambridge International Examination awards in the next five years especially as it affects Nigeria?
We will like to see closer cooperation and working with local examination boards so they can understand what we are doing. We have continued to receive applications from schools in Nigeria at this time, seeking to be accredited to offer the Cambridge pathway. We would like to see the organisation moving from our current over 380 accredited schools in Nigeria to 1,000 during this period to be able to positively impact the lives of as many learners as possible.