By Gabriel Dike and Bianca Iboma-Emefu
Head of the National Office (HNO), West African Examinations Council (WAEC), Nigeria, Patrick Ehidiamen Areghan, assumed office on Thursday, March 5, 2020. Until his appointment, he was Senior Deputy Registrar/Director, Head of Test Administration Division.
In this interview, he spoke on the council’s contributions to education in Nigeria in the last 69 years, the menace of examination malpractice, rogue websites, proposed e-certificate, ‘miracle centres,’ staff welfare and conducting examination on credit.
Sixty-nine years after, how far will you say WAEC has contributed to the educational development of Nigeria?
We have come a long way and have achieved a lot, but we are not there yet. We are striving to be there. This is the era of technology. It is only when you can do everything 100 per cent technologically, that you can say, yes we are there.
For example, very soon we are going to launch what we call digital certificate or digitalized certificate. That is something new that would revolutionize certification generally. It will also be interesting to see WAEC migrate from paper/pencil testing to digital and online examinations. We are working on that.
All over the world as at today, no country has been able to achieve that. Even in Holland, the home of online testing, they have not been able to migrate 100 per cent. We conduct what is called certificate examination. This is not a selection examination, where results of the examination are rolled out in few days.
We conduct examination in 76 subjects and 197 papers. Each candidate is expected to write a minimum of eight or maximum of nine subjects. It will take, at least, two weeks to mark and then process before release of results. It will be interesting to see this done, within a week. If we are able to do online testing, then we can be sure that that will be possible.
When you take the challenges of the country into consideration, where you have remote areas, that they don’t even know the colour of electricity they don’t know what it means to do things on the computer, then it is difficult to talk about online testing for now. The challenge of doing essay test on line is for now a big challenge all over the world. But we are not hopeless we are very hopeful that someday, we will get there.
WAEC is operating within the Nigerian space, we can’t develop faster than the Nigerian society. We are operating within the socio-cultural milieu we find ourselves and everything that affects the country, affects WAEC. When the country is able to move forward technologically, WAEC will definitely follow suit. The council cannot develop faster than the pace of the nation.
We have come a long way, we are the first examination body to start machine-marking where we scored objective answer sheets mechanically 1957, and processed the results mechanically, using the Hollerith machine.
We have many products that we have launched that we can say have produced some form of revolution in education in the country. Attestation of results, for example. If you are unable to find your certificate or something happens to it, may be you lose it, or termites ate it up or, you have lost it to any form of natural disaster, there is something we give to you in place of your lost certificate.
It is not the certificate but it looks like the certificate. We have done that to ease the suffering of the candidates and WAEC clients that hold our products. You can be in America, London or any part of the world and access our results online. It makes things easier. We are getting there and we are hopeful that we will get there.
What has been your experience?
A mixed-grill. I will say I am a child of circumstance. I came in and just as I was about to take my seat, I heard a knock on the door and I said who is it? Behold, it was COVID-19! COVID-19 pandemic almost shattered my dreams and aspirations.
I have a vision; I have a great deal of ambition. I have a clear vision and ideas of what I intend to do. I came in with great enthusiasm, believing that I am a project in the hands of God. Any project in the hands of God does not fail.
I set out to bring about landmark developments that would completely change the face of WAEC but COVID-19 slowed me down. I assumed office March 5, 2020 and on February 28, 2020, COVID-19 struck in Nigeria and we went into lockdown. My first examination was conducted in the heat of the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the end of the day, God Almighty helped us to conduct that examination. And it turned out to be one of the best ever. And then, the issue of finance that dwindled seriously, coupled with spiralling inflation that denied me the necessary funds to do the things I planned to achieve.
I met a workforce that was determined to go the extra mile. They are always ready to work, that was my saving grace. In spite of the difficulties faced by my staff, they were solidly behind me.
Yes, they equally need to be motivated. That is why our workers are different; they see the job as a project. Whether the situation is favourable or not, good or bad, they are always ready to put in their best and I count on them always.
I thank them for their support. Whatever we want to do, they are persistent, resilient, totally committed and with the help of God, we are moving on. We are getting over the difficult times. It has been a very difficult period in the sense that the society we serve, sort of misunderstands our position. That is what I call the WAEC dilemma.
Take for example, our relationship with schools. We say let’s do it this way to make the examination better for all and sundry, in line with the National Policy on Education. You take the Continuous Assessment (CASS), for example. It is a uniform policy in the entire sub-region.
The council decided that the data of prospective WASSCE candidates should be captured from SS1 to SS2, year by year. When you are registering for WASSCE in SS3, you capture the one for the third year. So, there would be no registration of external candidates.
The council in the sub-region made the decision. All member- countries in the sub-region have to abide by the decision. The schools should upload their candidates’ CASS. Some schools knew that this would ruin their plan to cheat if they complied because it would sort of disorganize their plan of bringing in external candidates.
I want to say some of them deliberately frustrated us. They told us it was not possible, something we were supposed to start as far back as 2018. Because of this resistance, we could not do it in 2018. This year, we had to put our feet down for us to start it, although it wasn’t easy to achieve that. Today, the external candidate issue has been resolved.
Again, there is the issue of examination malpractice. These rogue website operators. We work throughout the day and night to produce examination materials and some people will just be sitting somewhere, planning to disrupt what we use a whole year to prepare for.
They try to see how they can bring WAEC down. Members of the public do not want to understand. This is our greatest dilemma. They don’t believe that the materials are not from us.
Let me use Obi Lawal as a supervisor, for example. He takes money and allows candidates to go into the examination hall with their GSM phones. He can even use his phone to help them. He snaps the question paper and posts the picture to a designated digital platform. If you subscribed to the platform, you would see it.
Is it not foolishness on the part of a candidate sitting in the examination hall already and waiting for fake answers and will spend hours waiting for such answers? The public would not even bother to know the outcome of the examinations or how many of such candidates get their results. Those who indulge in such things end up shooting themselves on the foot.
When candidates fail examination, they believe the examination body fail them. WAEC will deal with them if it detects any form of malpractice. When you cheat in the objective paper, we will catch you using the Item Differentia Profile (IDP) technology (APP).
We equally use examiners to scrutinize the essay scripts. For instance, in a school where more than 50 per cent of candidates have committed malpractice in two or more papers, we de-recognize the school, for at least, two years. Results of some candidates and sometimes, the results of an entire school are cancelled due to involvement in examination malpractice.
The notion and rumour that WAEC cancels candidates’ results so that they will come back to enable WAEC make more money, is false, that is not the case. WAEC officials have families. We have blood relations. We have children, friends, family members who equally write these examinations.
No matter how powerful a Head of National Office is, he can never change the policies or regulations that govern the conduct of examinations. He doesn’t even have the powers and means to do so.
Nigerians have this perception that WAEC staff have access to question papers before the examinations are conducted?
That is ludicrous and unfortunate. I had a niece that stayed with me, my immediate sister’s daughter while I was in Uyo and my sister in-law. That was when I was directly in charge of examinations and the strong room.
They sat for the examination and didn’t pass. One made two papers, the other got either one or two, I cannot remember now. They tried for years without making their papers. Some family members were against me.
There was this general feeling that I didn’t want to help them. One day, they came to take one of them before I got back from work. Since I didn’t want to help her, they were going to take her to somewhere that she could be helped!
Are you saying you don’t have access to WAEC question papers?
I do not have access to question papers. Where will I see the question papers? Even if a staff goes to the press and I say, bring one question paper for me, where will he see it?
We don’t see naked question papers; they are parcelled and delivered to the custodian centres. God Almighty is looking at me and hearing me. I don’t see question papers before examinations are taken by candidates.
You don’t know, like English Language, what is expected tomorrow?
I read Political Science; let me use my subject where I have interest. Some years ago, after every examination, I would take the objective question paper and give myself five minutes to answer the questions. It gave me much joy then, it was thrilling but I don’t have the time to do that now.
For some years now, I have not even seen any dead question paper. There is no way you can see question papers, who will you ask for the question papers? The Head of Test Development Division is a Director, a Senior Deputy Registrar, will you tell her, I want question papers? And will she in turn tell the Head of Department, and so on and so forth, down the line?
Once papers are developed, they go to press for printing. The press is highly policed. All senior staff do night and day duty at the press and we police one another. The question papers are sent to zonal offices, packed in cellophanes, we don’t see the contents.
The only way you know the subject/paper the pack contains is from the window. You don’t see the content. If not that one would be breaching security protocol. One would have said, let’s go to one zonal office, so you can have an idea of how it is done.
Why does the council conduct examinations on credit for some states?
Sometimes, certain things are political in Nigeria. We can’t divorce ourselves from the larger society. WAEC does not have money. It’s only by the grace of God and extreme prudence that we are marching on. That money you are looking at is not enough for us to carry out our activities.
There are some states that are very credit-worthy. They tell you, please enrol our candidates, tomorrow we pay you and tomorrow comes they pay. We equally conduct for some states and they tell you they would pay but they end up not paying.
Some are still owing us for past examinations. Yet, we continue to attend to them in the national interest. But I am afraid we may no longer be able to continue with this policy.
The Nigeria Examinations Committee mandated WAEC to publish photographs of the candidates indicted, why is the council finding it difficult to do so?
Legally, we are not empowered to publish photographs; it is just names of those indicted. There will be a lot of legal implications. The names and details of their certificates are usually published in national dailies. We have been doing so.
Some years back, WAEC came up with photo embossment, but we still have impersonation. Was the project not meant to put an end to the menace?
The council has put in place some measures to check and curb these activities, but yes, we are still having the problem. It is a societal problem. Some people believe that they can come to WAEC and pay money and they will get a certificate. This is not possible.
Some people go to Oluwole (Lagos Island) to print certificate. When you place it side by side with our own certificate, they look alike. You can hardly know the difference. But we as WAEC officials can detect the fake certificate.
If you bring it, we will decode it and you will be caught and not be able to use it to get admission. You can’t use it to get employment because it will be detected. Once you submit it and they send it to WAEC for verification, you will be exposed. When they do screening, it will be brought to the council and you will be exposed.
If you are a politician, when they want to do screening, they will bring it to WAEC and you will be exposed. They can do whatever they like, some people do super-impose their photographs on certificates.
They do all sorts of things under the sun, yet this does not make the certificate authentic. They are fakes. That is why universities, polytechnics and colleges of education do verification and such people would be fished out.
Why does it take the council 10, 20 or even 30 years to cancel certificates issued to candidates?
No, no, no, it doesn’t take that long. In the past, we used to have released, withdrawn and cancelled certificates, but we have stopped that now. In Nigeria, there is what is called latest evidence. Even if a court gives judgment and there is new evidence to prove that the judgment was given in error, the case can be reviewed.
It is there in the syllabus that WAEC can cancel any certificate. So, it is not given that once you have your certificate, you can go with your loot, no. We are very thorough with our investigations. I can assure you that under my watch, nothing of such will happen anymore.
How is WAEC assisting in training teachers to stem poor performance of candidates?
We are an assessment body and not a regulatory agency. But because we know that quality of teaching will impact on the performance of students, we show concern. It is not our primary responsibility to train teachers but we do assist in our own little way.
Each state Ministry of Education is saddled with the responsibility to train teachers. The council regularly trains its staff to keep them up date on assessment of candidates. We organize training for teachers and students too.
We approach the states for training workshop. Some subscribe and when they subscribe, we deploy our personnel and move our resources to those states and we train their teachers. But how many states are interested?
The states that have done it are better for it today. The Federal Capital Territory has done it and one or two other states have done it. We are ready to help any state.
Can you share one experience since you have been involved in conduct of examinations?
I don’t want to scare our young officers. When I remember some, I laugh. There was one internal course we organized recently titled: “Field experiences”. I shared mine with them.
My experiences are many. When I talk at in-house seminars, I share with them all those field experiences. I may not be able to share them with you because of security implications.
I spent 20 years in the strong room as Assistant Registrar, Senior Assistant Registrar and Principal Assistant Registrar in charge of Examinations Security. I was transferred from Lagos to Abuja in 1990. I salvaged a lot of situations, avoided a lot of embarrassments and steered the train on the right track.
I did what the council expected me to do. We support one another to achieve a common goal. There is no, “thank God, it is not me” in the council.
If one does any embarrassing thing and I am in a position to prevent it and I say, is it not him/her, it will engulf all of us, the entire country and even the sub region. That is why we watch each other’s back.
In the conduct of school examinations, government monitors activities of public schools, who is responsible for private schools?
That is the problem we are really having. In some states, we have what is called Private Schools Directorate. I don’t think much seriousness is attached to monitoring the activities of private schools. That is where the problem really lies.
In public schools, we are not saying they are not malpractice-prone. But the level that it happens in private schools, the magnitude is very high. A principal in a public school knows that he or she is an employee of government. If he or she misbehaves, he or she will be sanctioned.
How much do private schools pay their teachers, even those employed as principals? Most private schools see it as a business. I won’t hesitate in saying that it is not easy to check examination malpractice in private schools.
The ministry is not putting an eye on private schools. We are not a regulatory agency. We only go there to conduct our examinations. The chunk of the problems we have, come from private schools.
WAEC has a fixed amount for WASSCE. Have you taken your time to find out what private schools charge?
Again, that is another problem we have with the state ministries of education. We charge N13,950 for WASSCE. It is unfortunate that schools can charge as much as N50, 000.
Some parents are happy to pay. They say that is where they will get help for their children. They call them “miracle centres.” The private schools will tell them that the candidate will be put in a special class and will be aided to pass. You will see someone leaving a good school and migrating to a poorly-equipped/staffed school.
Do WAEC have miracle centres?
As far as WAEC is concerned, there is nothing like miracle centres. But we cannot claim ignorance of the existence of miracle centres. They are not the creation of WAEC. We don’t have any space for miracle centres.
Miracle centres are created by the operators. What do we mean by a miracle centre? It is a place where anything is possible as regards examinations. They promise to help candidates get good grades.
Sometimes they write on the board and collect money from them. Candidates pay for every subject they take. These are the challenges the council is facing. But the good news is that the candidates/schools do not get away with their loot.
Why are they examination centres?
They are examination centres because they are recognized schools. They have been recognized to present candidates for school candidates’ examination. We get a letter from state Ministry of Education that this school is recognized as a centre for WAEC examination.
We go there to confirm if they have the facilities. If they don’t have the facilities, we will inform the state Ministry of Education that we cannot recognize the school. Recognizing a school does not make a school a miracle centre. It is what you make of your approval that will turn you into a good school or a miracle centre.
There is a difference between a school and, an examination centre. A school is where you have regular students and proper academic activities take place. A miracle centre is a school where they simply write examinations.
Miracle centres are filled up with external candidates during examinations. It is the duty of the Ministry of Education to look into these issues. Gladly, the introduction of yearly capture of CASS has solved this problem.
What plans do you have for staff welfare?
The staffs are very supportive. No one is carrying placards. What they are earning, they deserve to earn more because of the nature of their job. The staffs understand that this is the much we can offer. You cannot misappropriate any money here. It is not possible.
Money is like question papers. Before money is spent, it goes through series of approvals. Everything is properly documented. There is no sole administrator in WAEC. For now, we are doing our best within our limits, but the staffs certainly deserve more.
What kind of council will you leave behind?
When you grow up and have children, you pray for your children to be better than you. I am hoping and praying that the next HNO will be better than me. The council of tomorrow will be better than today.
I want to leave a council that will deploy a lot of technology in its operations. I want to leave a council that will wrestle the scourge of examination malpractice to the ground.
I want to leave a legacy of better welfare package for the staff. I want to be counted as one of the best. I want to have a regular interface with the press.
I want pressmen to balance their reports. Whenever they have any piece of information, they should not just go to press just because they have a piece of sensational information; they should investigate to balance the report. We have not said they should twist a story hear our side of the story too.
Once some people see something on the net they will say WAEC papers have leaked. The ghost of leakage has been laid to rest many years ago. WAEC wants a synergy with the press.
The press can educate the public and the public will have a better understanding of what happens in the council, so that they will know there are processes, we do things in certain ways. This is the type of council I want to leave behind.
We want a situation whereby anywhere you present WAEC certificate, everyone will appreciate the result. I want to change the narrative. Starting with this examination (WASSCE for School Candidates, 2021), I want to plead with the press to help us inform the candidate to sit down and read their books.
They can use the COVID -19 2020 experience, when everybody sat down at home, parents turned teachers, teaching their children. The children were hooked up to WAEC- Konnect. Look at the fantastic results. If they repeat that in the 2021 WASSCE, they will also get good results.
We are not interested in failing any candidate. It is not possible that a candidate will pass and he will be failed or a candidate fails and he will be passed. It is not just WAEC staffs that are doing all this work, experts from the sub-region are involved. Nothing is done arbitrarily. Candidates should sit down and read their books. Parents should stop “sorting for” their children. They are killing their future and destroying their destiny. They should not pay for special centre for them. Let them read on their own and provide the materials for them.
The government, Ministry of Education should strengthen the inspectorate arm for inspection of schools and this should be regular. Appointment of supervisor is equally important. WAEC does not have the power to appoint supervisors it is done by the state Ministries of Education.
We write to them what we need. They will nominate the supervisors and the shortlisting is done at a tripartite meeting – WAEC, Ministry of Education and the Teaching Service Commission. The nominated supervisors will then be appointed and trained by WAEC.
If we appoint anybody on our own, we are in trouble. If such supervisor misbehaves, whom do you report to? If any WAEC staff does that he/she gets sacked. The HNO can’t appoint anyone as a supervisor. That person must be a practicing teacher from a government school.
Once there is good supervision, examination malpractice will be reduced. Supervisors should, therefore, be men and women of high level integrity and must be very senior teachers.
By and large, we are not yet perfect. However, we are trying to change the narrative, trying to do our best. Even if our best is yet to come, there are bright prospects we will certainly get there.