This article is an attempt to pay homage to the pioneers who contributed to make the future of this country brighter than what it might have been by setting up private secondary schools in the country at a critical stage of its economic and social development.
At one stage in the development of Mauritius, it was enough to have a pass at the level of Standard VI at the primary school level to be considered an achiever. Few could reach that level of proficiency which opened up the doors to social uplift in a society fundamentally rooted in agricultural production. Those who had crossed this barrier were looked upon with much respect in those days when the literacy rate was extremely low. As the population increased, however, in later years, it was success at the level of the Cambridge School Certificate (or Form V) which became the hallmark of success for a whole upcoming young generation. Passing the exam at that level was considered the sine qua non for moving up from the mere status of being an agricultural hand to the then glorified position of clerkhood in mainly the public services. The economy was still narrow-based not being endowed with meaningful other activities other than work affiliated to road-making, railways, electricity generation, iron mongering, crafts, agriculture and commerce.
This past generation of masons, fishermen, mechanical apprentices in factories, workers in factory electrical units, tabagie-owners, labourers, handy men of all sorts, small shop owners and planters of a primarily agricultural society, was keen to see the further emancipation of their children. It noted that the higher rungs of society were occupied by persons endowed with formal school education up to Form V or VI. There were not many of these at the time and most of them lived in the urban areas of the country. It also saw that an even higher status was conferred upon those who had qualified in foreign universities after completing their secondary schooling. It was a starry-eyed generation which looked upon education as the ultimate redeemer from one form or other of forced or menial labour, a life condemned to the risk of being thrown into utter poverty at the least economic adversity hitting the fortunes of the country. It decided, at the cost of very high sacrifices on its own livelihood, to invest in the education of its offsprings so that the latter be spared the life of hardship and of vicissitudes that had been theirs.
A Tool of Social and Economic Empowerment
With whatever means they had at hand, people of that generation devoted themselves to the furtherance of the education of their children by all available means. There developed a system of informal teaching at the social level funded by parents and volunteers. Baithkas (for teaching of oriental languages) sprang up in all parts of the country in larger numbers along with Madrassas (teaching of Urdu and Koranic cultures), often in the early hours of the morning or late afternoon, in parallel with the Roman Catholic schools which had entered into the imparting of full-fledged formal education to their wards much earlier. Our Kovils and other social centres also dispensed part time linguistic and cultural education to a generation that had been thirsting for it so far. But not all had access to government or confessional schools. Not surprisingly, the founder of this newspaper, assisted by a number of social leaders, had to engage into a crusade to “Admit Our Children” in publicly funded schools. It is at the cost of much struggle that universal access to public schooling was obtained at that stage of the country’s political and economic development. The movement led to publicly funded primary schools springing up in villages which were obscurely known till then in the remotest parts of the colony.
As a result, the number of those who managed to complete their primary schooling increased considerably, with varying degrees of success. All groups of the population were keenly attuned to the provision of education to their children in the quest for universal emancipation from poverty and economic vulnerability which was a constant feature of colonial life. However, primary schooling was no longer the passport to social success as it had been a generation ago. One needed to complete formal education to at least the Cambridge School Certificate, or, better still, to the level of the Cambridge Higher School Certificate (after seven years of secondary schooling) to aspire having access to that coveted job of becoming a primary or secondary school teacher, nurse, policeman or civil servant. This was the situation in the 1950s.
However, there were not as many public schools providing secondary education to children in those days. There were the two Royal Colleges, joined later by John Kennedy College, which accepted those boys who had come at the top after the Sixth Standard in the ensuing Junior Scholarship examinations. Their intake was altogether around 300 per annum. On the girls’ side, there was the Queen Elizabeth College which gave access to some 100 top girl students at the level of Form I. But the demand for secondary schooling in the colony was much more than what these publicly funded secondary schools could accommodate. Apart from these, there were Catholic and other Christian denomination secondary schools which were designed originally to provide formal secondary education to their own specific pools of students, both boys and girls. They opened up selectively later on to children from other religious confessions, albeit for a much smaller number of those. There also came up later the Islamic Cultural College and the Hindu Girls College, the DAV and some others which dispensed education to their confessional groups modelled on the Christian secondary schools. Even that was not enough to fulfil the pent-up demand for higher schooling in the colony.
The Primordial Role played by Private Secondary Schools
It is in this context of unsatisfied demand for admission to public and confessional secondary schooling that we need to assess the key role played by secular private secondary schools towards the real uplift of this country. Several of these secondary schools have now been for up to 50 to 60 years in the dispensation of education to the un-served part of the education market in Mauritius. The work they have done to comprehensively uplift the rest of the population, along with the public and confessional elite schools, has been remarkable. It may be said that they have played a role no less deserving than political leaders of the past generation who struggled for the freedom of the masses and their economic emancipation. It is they who have contributed immensely to make the Mauritian society the rather inclusive place that it has become today.
Many of them did not have the means to train up their wards to their satisfaction to the level of the public and confessional schools. For example, they had to seek access to the laboratories of the Royal College to give the required lab training to their own students since they could not afford to have a lab of their own for the science subjects. They enjoyed no subsidy from the government. They chalked out their curricula and school programs much the same as the government and confessional secondary schools since the final port of call for the education being dispensed was the same – the Cambridge School Certificate and/or the Cambridge Higher School Certificate. They competed to have the highest numbers of passes at the School Certificate and Higher School Certificate levels and compared their results with those of the publicly funded and confessional schools. What an audacity they had to dare measure themselves up against those who housed the elites and had the best facilities for teaching with the highest calibre teachers of the island! Be that as it may, they were always on the lookout to staff their institutions with the best teachers they could lay their hands upon. They were idealists in their own way.
It must be said outright that the men and women of that generation who came forth to establish private secondary schools were men and women of some character and strong dedication, disciplinarians and humanists of the highest order. They were constantly taking the risk to fill up the void in which those who had been left behind, after the elitist and confessional schools had taken their quotas, were finding themselves. They were the Obeegadoos of Trinity College, the Bhujoharrys of Bhujoharry College, the Pattens of Patten College, the Balgobins of Eden College, the Roys of Mauritius College, the Venkatasamy of New Eton College, the Jeetahs of Prof Bissoondoyal College, the Khadaroos of Darwin College, the Chan Lam of London College, the Bolakees and Chamroos of Universal College, the Sanmukhiyas of Modern College, the Bunwarees of Ideal College, the Napals of Cosmopolitan College, the Chellappoos, Bhugaloos, Luchmuns, and many others which I am unable to recollect, not because they were not persons of the same high stature and dedication as those that have been named but simply due to failing memory. The educational establishments bore names inspired by the highest establishments of learning or educators and scientists of great renown of those days: London, Cambridge, Trinity, Darwin, Hamilton, Keats, Shelley, Byron, Eastern, Modern, Universal, and so forth.
This selection of names should be enough to make it clear that the promoters were targeting to associate themselves with the highest levels of achievement for the institutions they had set up. Although they needed the school fees to pay up for the costs of running the establishments, they were not out to make money. They wanted to see themselves rather as persons held in high esteem by society. Performing educators were respected and honoured very highly in those days. Several of them offered scholarships and grants to their poorer students, so the latter could pursue their education up to the end. There were many students who could not complete their courses but for these philanthropic supports especially when the economic means of their parents faltered for some reason or other in those precarious times.
The Fruits of Perseverance
Many of the educational establishments – and their dedicated promoters – which saved a full generation of Mauritians by imparting education – when the latter had nowhere else to go to — are no longer here. Some private establishments are still around despite the era of free education at the secondary level which came into play from 1976. Last year, we saw Modern college, one of these private secondary schools started in the 1960s in the district of Flacq, bag a secondary school scholarship for one of its students in Higher School Certificate competitive exams. This was the exception rather than the rule but it was a potent signal to others belonging to the same fold that they could do just as well and shine like the other star secondary schools of the country.
It may be noted that the competition was against the much better equipped state secondary and other confessional schools. It is therefore a feat worth celebrating. It shows that where there is a will to shine, it is not impossible for even those who are relatively disadvantaged to contend successfully with the normally scholarship monopolizing elite secondary schools. The signal given to other schools needs to be heeded. It can be said that for such institutions, the future has not always been cast in stone, what with the availability or not of high profile teachers or an intellectually strong pool of students to draw from. It shows that hard work pays.
It can be said altogether that private secondary schools of the 1950s and the 1960s have played a critical role to help this country reap fully the benefits of an education system which served the purpose for which it was set up. Behind this success, there have been persons who were genuine in their quest and educators at heart. We need more such people to turn the country’s educational system around at a time when top providers of global education in the US and the UK are reinventing themselves to fit into what they call “the global race for jobs and for wealth”. Had our private secondary schools the same stamina they had once, it is they who could have spearheaded this called-for re-engineering of the process of education in Mauritius!