The Key Role of Education in personal and social development

The last of the Certificate of Primary Examination (CPE) was held this year. The CPE system is being replaced by a 9-year schooling program as from now.

Like any exam having the dual purpose of evaluating individual candidates and using the results as a basis for allocating limited number of seats in what are perceived to be elite schools, the CPE has been seen as a source of stress for both the candidates and their parents.

The CPE has been criticised for having imposed tough competition among students at a relatively young age. It has been called a ‘rat race’ by virtue of the fact that it has brought about a scrambling after the few seats available in selected secondary schools as compared to the larger number of aspiring students. Pressures have mounted over the years. Private tuition outside of school hours thus became a major means for securing good results at the individual level, leaving hardly any time for the concerned students to feel relaxed.

Education as social redeemer

For a country such as Mauritius, education has been both an important social emancipator and a strong basis for social integration. It has lifted thousands of families out of abject poverty to a state of relative well-being. For, had it been based solely on economic affordability, society would have remained as it was with a significant class divide where only those at the top would have enjoyed the fruits of liberalisation through education. Mauritius was fortunate to bring in widespread access to reasonable education across the board as a social redeemer.

This is what has permitted descendants of former slaves and indentured labourers not only to gain the self-respect they were denied when society was at a feudal state of development. It also permitted them to convincingly find expression in the highest spheres of national life.

Not enough will be said about how education played a critical empowering role to create better aspirations in society and to impart the confidence among citizens that they were not inferior to others living in different climes and cultures. In that sense, the pre-CPE competition was not so much a “killer” as a creator of potential, of uncovering of unsuspected talents among those who would otherwise have been left behind.

Getting educated was not merely for passing exams in the first stage. It conferred some depth of culture among those who assiduously studied even if it was only at the primary school level. A good command over language and numeracy, along with a degree of self-restraint in public, was the hallmark of a past generation which pioneered inroads into further intellectual and moral development for the next generation. Education was not a mere utilitarian goal. It was the foundation for raising worthy families and for getting recognized as such in society.

We have travelled a long distance. Somewhere down this road, the education system needed to be overhauled to provide the sense of individual fulfilment it is meant to provide and to consolidate without friction the social cohesion it achieved. Unfortunately, it ultimately also became a device for fostering severe competition and dividing society into achievers and non-achievers.

Factors which reduced the scope of our education

The school dropouts particularly have felt increasingly alienated from the society they live in. Those who have qualified and been unable to secure decent jobs or have enlisted themselves into random jobs have somehow lost confidence in themselves, even seeing themselves as misfits in the workplace on occasion.

A few who have succeeded have become anything but altruistic towards the others who have not made it so well. The constraint imposed by a limited domestic market has prevented talent burgeoning up and flourishing in terms of application of learning.

All this has given rise to a general lowering of social values, an increase in frustrations and violence of different sorts, including self-inflicted violence in the form of drug addiction, for example. Unless this course is reversed in time, we may stop getting the huge dividends we have reaped from our widespread dispensation of education. Besides, if our education system does not attune itself to the global trend, we’ll not quite see Mauritius as the regional education hub we contemplated so often.

Seen from another perspective at the global level, while the educational system has given rise to the same issues we have in Mauritius in certain places, many other countries have constantly reformed their education systems to cope with the changing world situation. Thus, we have a multispeed global situation in which some are being left behind whereas others are adapting and reaping the benefits of a faster technology-driven society. This is creating unstable situations at the global level.

Millennium and Sustainable Development Goals

It may be recalled that the United Nations, seeing the unevenness of individual country developments across the world and a tendency for the least developed countries to fall further behind, adopted the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for the period 2000 to 2015. The aim was to tackle the creeping problem of under-development due to serious discrepancies in social structures, including a low-performing education system in several of the worst affected poverty-stricken countries. The MDGs emphasized efforts at raising access, participation and enrolment in the education process.

The world has achieved some improvement in this regard no doubt despite 250 million children being left illiterate worldwide. Much still remains to be done to re-invent education as a tool for better personal and social fulfilment. While certain advanced countries have adapted to fast changing technology in past years and their education systems have been reformed to keep pace, others have not made the required efforts.

Unequal paces of development have given rise to serious gaps in education having to be bridged up again within and among countries. Frustrations and conflicts have flared up in what is perceived as a multispeed global economy in which the less well-off are constantly disadvantaged, even within single countries.

Quality of education and lifelong learning

The United Nations therefore took the decision in September 2015 to enunciate a new 15-year framework targeting the realisation by 2030 of seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), successor to the MDGs. On education in particular, its fourth goal for the next 15 years is to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”.

A major goal underlying the education objective is to impart “knowledge and skills through a better performing education system, resulting in across-the-board sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and its contribution to development”.

Other SDGs deal with a whole range of objectives: from ending poverty to reducing inequalities within and among countries, passing through sustainable inclusive growth, empowering women and girls and promoting peaceful and inclusive societies.

Adapting to a paradigm shift

Mauritius is challenged in this new context to shift the focus on developing a lifelong learning process, adapting the individual’s skills and resilience to constantly changing external conditions by inculcating competence, along with good character, and not merely by insisting on sheer qualifications and credentials gained at a point in time, as in the past.

This should call for an overhaul not only at the primary and secondary school levels. Tertiary education has to be the driver of this new stage of our educational development, working in unison with local enterprise but also with foremost international technology firms capable of helping us input our knowhow to advance and better integrate with societies and economies in our immediate neighbourhood. We need to get hold of the best brains, from anywhere.

Can we shift our attention to delve into the intricacies of this new challenge so as to make ourselves relevant in the changing global framework? We should not hesitate: even advanced economies such as Japan are re-schooling themselves so as not to be left behind.

Anil Gujadhur

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