Modernise and Reinvent our Education System

To keep with global trends

“Education is an evolving field, needing to be overhauled from time to time in the light of developments at the global level. Most of our energies should have therefore gone towards this overhaul instead of being spent on negativities the sorts of which have been coming up of late on the front stage…”

The kind of information thrown up lately about our education sector does not do justice to it. There has been an amount of idle talk for months now about an alleged case of paedophilia at the Mauritius Institute of Training and Development, a technical and vocational training institution set up in 2009 to take over from the Industrial and Vocational Training Board.

Hardly did the news about the Vice Chancellor of the University of Mauritius being prompted to step down barely a year after he took up office die down than another rumour started floating around to the effect that there would be some universities operating out here which do not have the necessary authorisation from their overseas regulators to operate in Mauritius.

Some foreign students having enrolled for courses given by one such educational institution have come out with a statement that they would actually have fallen victim to swindling because nothing of what they were looking forward to by way of training has actually materialized and they would even have lost the money they paid to get enrolled.

It goes without saying that all this does not throw our education sector into bright light but that it actually tends to depress the image it has created for itself from the good work that has been going on since decades past to uphold the performance of our education system.

Matters like these should have been scotched without delay so that they remain the least of its preoccupations for a country aspiring to launch itself as a centre of learning. Education is an evolving field, needing to be overhauled from time to time in the light of developments at the global level. Most of our energies should have therefore gone towards this overhaul instead of being spent on negativities the sorts of which have been coming up of late on the front stage.

Education has played and will continue to play a pivotal role in the future development of Mauritius. It should therefore be accorded the priority it deserves as the most significant transformative instrument we have in our hands to sharpen and make our human resources increasingly productive. Logically, weaker schools should have been endowed with far more resources than those perceived to be not so weak to help them pull up above the slack that holds them down. Is that the case in reality? Doubtful.

The one single factor that has nevertheless made a difference in the economic development of Mauritius has been the quality of education dispensed ever since the colonial days. Not only has our comprehensive education system supplied the basic skills and resources that we have then applied to support base level economic activity. It has also acted as a spur for generations of Mauritians to go further forward and acquire applied on-the-job skills and additional training from overseas centres of learning to help sustain the diversification of the economy and maintain the country’s status as a trusted, ‘civilised’ and forward-looking society. The school remains in today’s highly competitive world the springhead of our future hopes for getting on to jobs and higher productivity.

It is a good thing that there is a widespread recognition in Mauritius of the value of education in terms of both personal and social advancement. When parents go out looking for the best schools in which to ‘place’ their wards, this act amounts to an acknowledgement that those are the places where the quality of education is, in their opinion, at a better level than elsewhere. Because such schools are limited in number, there is a scramble by parents keen to get their wards admitted in those selective schools.

Abstracting from moral aspects, the quest of parents to look out for the best – mostly in urban areas — in which to educate their wards is rational. This kind of exercise of choice is bound to arise in a system in which the distance among schools is so big that some of them consistently score the most in terms of achievements while others are unheard of in this respect. It is this situation, more than anything else, that determines the race (some call in ‘rat race’) to secure the best the education system has to offer.

We should not make the mistake to believe that this kind of competition to secure the best spots is anything specific to Mauritius. Unequal systems exist in nearly all other places on the planet. Had this not been the case, hallowed and elitist places of tertiary education like Stanford, MIT, Harvard, Yale, Oxford and Cambridge would not have become the highest references for generations of learners claiming to belong to alma mater imparting the most excellent in education in their specific fields.

There would be nothing wrong if our own establishments of higher learning tried to emulate the standards of such reputed universities and earned a name in the process for being top of the notch, rigorous, methodical and keeping up the company of the titans in the field of education. Nothing other than a complex of inferiority and not providing the required resources would stand in the way of our aspiration to rise to the higher pitch.

What applies at the level of graduate colleges also applies to schools. Just as there are rankings of universities at the global level, schooling systems of individual countries are assessed in terms of their deliveries. One of these measures is the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) which covers more than 40 countries worldwide. The aim of PISA is not to assess students’ capacity by their ability to memorize material; it focusses instead on their effectiveness at problem-solving. Its latest findings are surprising: pupils in Finland, South Korea, Japan and Canada score much higher than their peers in Germany, Britain, America and France. The point is that explanations usually tendered to explain achievements like these – wealth, privilege and race – have nothing to do.

In countries like Finland, Poland and South Korea, students at this level work much harder than their American counterparts. The students are taken to sophisticated levels of understanding how the real world works right at the doorstep of what they are learning. Maths classes, for example, are coupled with fascinating demonstrations of how geometry, trigonometry and calculus are applied in the real world; this goes beyond the esoteric construct of sheer theory. The conviction that is taken out of such applied demonstrations has an enduring effect on the young mind.

The teachers themselves in every subject exhibit the authority of professionals held in high regard. They will leave nothing to chance. The teachers’ conviction is that their responsibility consists of having a brain to shape up in each individual case and this is what counts above everything else. They identify the schools as places to help students master complex academic material demanding rigorous work and every child in their custody has to rise to the occasion indistinctly. In their view, the mission of the schools is to ensure that children succeed in classrooms where they are expected to succeed, no less.

Some may find this level of school discipline and unbending pursuit of set objectives to be lacking in compassion towards those less able to keep up the pace. Results show however that this method has overcome the general – and often misguided — perception that academic mediocrity is attributable to inherited “backgrounds” and “neighbourhoods”. If factors such as this exist, they are not insuperable. By not letting sympathy cloud judgement, and concentrating rather more thoroughly on the actual work of the students, teachers are able to overcome the perverse sort of compassion which keeps students from weaker backgrounds doing as well as – if not better than — those supposedly from stronger backgrounds.

Did not the sons and descendants of past generation slaves and labourers in Mauritius rise to form part of the governing elite of the country in several technical domains, overcoming hundreds of economic and social obstacles standing in their way? All you needed was a system that did not allow the brain to be distracted from its principal goal of pursuing something which it recognizes as real and applicable to the outside environment.

It is true that schools in Mauritius are not even with each other in terms of the level of teaching they impart. Had there been the same level of management commitment and explicit incentive to prove their efficacy by way of results achieved at each individual institution, things would have moved towards greater parity in terms of education imparted among schools. The scramble for ‘star’ schools would not have been that intense. The weakness of our education system appears to be not in the students themselves but in the lack of awe and respect that individual educational establishments inspire. This is inextricably linked to the somewhat desultory and dismissive attitudes some individual school managements own themselves up to. One needs reminding perhaps that schools should be run for the benefit of pupils, not for that of unsackable teachers however badly they perform their duties.

Reforming the schooling system to foster a higher culture of work and national commitment is as much a requirement today as it was during the colonial days. Times are changing and we cannot but move along with the changing times, shifting our focus to the best modern practices in the field of education.

The adverse publicity our education system has been receiving publicly will make it more difficult to climb out of our current limitations in terms of qualitative deliveries from schools. But there is a ray of hope – countries like Finland, Poland and South Korea all experienced moments of economic and existential crises. They’ve been able to buckle down and change their stories for the better. If we pluck up enough courage to address issues firmly and without fainting, we should do as well as they’ve done.

* Published in print edition on 6 September 2013

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