Rather than sweep the problem under the carpet and treat it as a normal state of affairs, it is time we recognize this problem as a national failure
By Sada Reddi
Amidst the festivities of the season, it may be inappropriate on the one hand to hark back to one of the major problems of education that have haunted our citizens for decades: the rate of failure at the end of primary education stream. On the other hand, this is also the season for new year resolutions at the individual, community and national levels. It is hoped that one of these resolutions for the coming year at the national level will be to resolutely address the issue of the inefficiency and wastage at the primary level which results in about 30% of our children failing to attain the minimum standard of education.
Rather than sweep the problem under the carpet and treat it as a normal state of affairs, it is time we recognize this problem as a national failure, and it should be the new year’s resolution for the authorities to make a proper diagnosis of the problem and find a lasting and sustainable solution.
This increasing rate of failure has come as an anti-climax at the end of the year, though we should acknowledge that various efforts and measures have been undertaken over the past decades by various governments to improve the standard of our primary education sector. The outcome has unfortunately not been satisfactory. Most of the time, we have dealt with problems as they cropped up with piecemeal solutions which did not deliver long-lasting results.
Readers will recall that in the past, there have been community schools, changes in the examination system from the Primary Leaving School Certificate (PLSC) to the Certificate of Primary Education (CPE), and presently the Primary School Achievement Certificate (PSAC). We have had diagnostic tests at standard II, later at standard III, remedial education/Enhancement/Summer and Winter school programmes. There have also been the Zone d’Education Prioritaire (ZEP), the deployment of ICT in primary schools, school community partnerships as well as Government-Private Sector partnerships for school improvements and changes in the curriculum, the introduction of creole in schools and a number of other measures to improve the pass rate at primary level.
Around 2008, there was an effort to go beyond primary education when the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Finance independently reached the conclusion that about 4500 pupils did not attend pre-primary schools, and a grant of Rs 200 was made for every pupil attending pre-primary. During the same period, the Early Childhood Care and Education Authority was set up for the management of the pre-primary sector. Other measures too have followed. There has also been a continuous stream of visitors, consultants and experts to provide an impetus for reflection and action.
We cannot deny that there must have been some qualitative improvements here and there, but given the absence of any systematic evaluation, it is not possible to identify tangible and identifiable progress. Although we do acknowledge that about 60-70% of pupils manage to reach a certain standard of literacy and numeracy, the overall verdict for the primary education sector is one of failure with the 30% who are unable to reach the standard expected of them. It is therefore legitimate to ask why the nation is failing so many of its children year in year out. We do not have the answer/s to that question.
Some educationists are now advocating that the state assume responsibility for all our children from 0 to 3, or at least those who come from vulnerable families. This would be a most laudable measure as we would be able to assist our children’s development through to the whole cycle of their development up to the end of grade 9, thus ensuring that their development and education rest on solid foundations. There is general consensus regarding the measures so far taken and the new proposals which rest on child development and education theories, and implementing them in our local context is no harm at all.
However, we cannot help deploring the fact that there is practically little solid research done on early childhood and primary education in our local context. So far, our assessment of our education sector at all levels is impressionistic, and we usually take action on the basis of vague generalisations and advice. This ‘hit and miss’ approach is wasteful of limited resources, inefficient and can only end in failure. We tried Form VI colleges but they did not deliver the expected results and were subsequently abandoned.
We have also tried regionalization in the hope that it would eliminate competition for star schools, but competition is as intense as before for the few state regional colleges and new star schools have emerged in the regions. We also thought that regionalization would eliminate private tuition; in fact it has stepped up private tuition as from Grade 5 up to Grade 9 for a large number of pupils, while for others it has reduced the incentive to achieve a reasonable standard of education and this penalizes pupils from low-income groups.
In the eyes of many educationists, the overall result has been a general decline in the standard of education at the primary level and this is driving many parents to look for private primary education. We should now come with a transparent system, which highlights our successes and our failures. Political correctness and opacity will no longer do.
For example, we should not conceal the fact to the general public that in all our primary examinations, total marks or total aggregate continue to be used at PSAC level to assess and grade pupils’ performance as they had been done in the past for all our examinations including the CPE for admission in colleges – whether regional or not.
With the coming Form III examination it will be useless to continue with the same artifice and confuse parents with such terms as GPA (grade point average) or some other statistical jargon to avoid the term ‘total marks’ or ‘aggregate’. We may like to convey the impression that the evaluation will be innovative, but it is not.
Instead of simply coming again with fresh measures and other palliatives to improve primary education on an ad hoc basis, we should first be able to grasp the major problems which impede the improvement of primary education, and there is no other way of doing so except by undertaking some solid research in the schools and the catchment areas where the rate of failure has been very high. This will require an interdisciplinary team of educationists, anthropologists and sociologists who have a genuine interest in such issues and are willing to embark on such applied research in these targeted areas of education in a sustainable way. Unfortunately, at present we do not have such expertise in our institutions and, if there were, they would have already started the research on their own and we would have known their findings which would have been beneficial to our decision makers.
In the absence of such expertise, we can only fall back on foreign experts in these areas to work in close collaboration with a few dedicated local researchers and with adequate resources provided by the Ministry or some international institutions to investigate the roots of our educational problems in the primary school system. This looks like a tall order for the government, but it should not be, if we are willing and determined to look at the root causes of our failure in the primary sector.