The quality of the secondary education system in Nigeria is ranked below average by both local and international bodies. Corruption is a major reason for the low ranking and poor performance in secondary schools, and manifests in the form of widespread examination malpractice in Senior Secondary Certificate Examinations (SSCE). Although there is published evidence of examination malpractice in both public and private Nigerian secondary schools, there is little information available on how private schools in particular sustain this practice through institutional arrangements. This qualitative study, undertaken in southern and northern parts of the country, explores exam malpractice in the context of private secondary schools in Nigeria that have registered as examination centres to conduct SSCE but have institutionalised corrupt practices and are securing rents from intense patronage. Such centres are commonly known as Miracle Examination Centres (MECs) or special centres. Our study explores the operations of MECs with the aim of providing viable solutions to the problem of exam malpractice. We interviewed 181 stakeholders involved in examinations in secondary schools. They include parents and students, as well as representatives of examination bodies, Ministries of Education and civil society organisations (CSOs). The findings show that private schools that engage in organised malpractice are widespread and enjoy huge support and patronage from community members. The schools could be described as avenues for obtaining illegal services during external examinations, upon payment of agreed fees. Candidates who meet the financial demands of these centres are either provided with the examination question papers in advance, or are given the answers before or during the examination itself. Other illegal services may also be provided to ensure the candidates obtain good grades. It was also found that efforts to reduce the activities of MECs have recorded limited success due to the centres’ strategies to court popularity in the communities where they are sited.
We recommend an innovative solution that involves enforcement of rules by stakeholders at the grassroots level in the education sector (horizontal solutions), in addition to some actions to be taken from above, including by the Ministries of Education (vertical solutions). We argue that these two forms of action will complement each other in tackling the problem of exam malpractice. Horizontal interventions include mobilising rule-following schools against MECs by facilitating in-school policies to prevent undue migration of students, and enabling owners and directors of non-corrupt schools and higher authorities to expose and enforce sanctions against MECs. We also recommend support for rule-following schools, CSOs, communities and students around whistle-blowing, as many of these stakeholders are keen to expose MECs but are thwarted by the absence of clear reporting channels and protective policies.
Overall, the quality of education in Nigeria, in terms of curriculum content and delivery, is challenging; students may feel forced to rely on MECs to pass SSCE and could be supported by their parents who do not want their children to be associated with failure or trying to avoid repeated payments for the examinations. However, some of the candidates are only interested in securing the certificate and not the knowledge that comes with effective schooling. Therefore, while it is important to strengthen examination processes and ethics in Nigeria, an emphasis on well-funded, quality education that comprises a sound curriculum, accepted and supported by all schools and examination bodies, as well as competent teaching of curriculum content and provision of psycho-social services for students, must form part of a comprehensive approach to the problem of MECs.
Keywords: Academic corruption, Examination malpractice, Examination fraud, Miracle Examination Centres, Special Centres, NECO, WAEC