Laureates, elites and non star-colleges: rhetoric and reality

Ex-Minister of Education 2005-08

One of the enduring facets of our present education system is the laureate scheme which rewards outstanding academic performance of our young students taking part in the competitive annual HSC examinations, on a meritocratic basis.

Controversies

The scheme has been the subject of repeated controversies. On the one hand, we have the critics who outright and strongly condemn it as a symbol of elitism – a glorification of a select privileged minority, a perpetuation of economic and social divide through education, and a negation of the fundamental mission of education of promoting social and economic mobility.

On the other hand, we have those who see in the laureate scheme an opportunity to break the elitist educational glass ceiling and through personal efforts and perseverance, even with limited resources, leverage the existing educational opportunities to overcome historically imposed economic and social constraints.

In between we have a majority who seem to be content or indifferent to the existing laureate scheme.

However, when results are announced, since a few years now, media and the public in general, have been underscoring the excellent performance of what has been tagged as “non-star”, underprivileged colleges, which are normally located in the rural areas. This in itself constitutes an important breakthrough in transforming the “traditional elite” etiquette attached to the present laureate scheme into a more “meritocratic elite”. It also expands the scope for the “non-star colleges” for improving the overall quality of their educational programmes and processes and to be on a par with the traditional star colleges.

In a way, all this tantamounts/are tantamount to a form of democratisation of elitism and improvement of the overall quality of education – albeit a slow process.

Policy choices and implications

The issue of the maintenance or otherwise of the laureate scheme has been a subject of concern in the context of educational policy decisions elaborated by successive governments in the recent past. Upon the announcement of the laureates every year, there is a deliberate attempt in certain quarters to mix up the merits or demerits of policy choices and their implications. A brief chronological recap will help to put the issue in its proper perspective.

•       2000-2005 — MSM-MMM Government

This was the period when the Form I to V and Form VI colleges formula was introduced. This was a policy of the then MSM-MMM government. If it had been maintained, most of the bright students would have deserted the Form I to V colleges and migrated to Form VI colleges. The psychological impact on the remaining students and the staff of these colleges would have been dramatic, eventually resulting in undermining the standard of the former (i.e. non-star) colleges. Like in the previous years, students from “non-star colleges” have excelled. Would this have been possible with the policy of Form I to V and Form VI colleges (2003-2005)? Many would simply not be having Form VI classes and, therefore, no students to compete for laureateship.

It should be borne in mind that most of these non-star colleges are located in the rural areas. It should also be noted that the confessional colleges, located mostly in the urban areas, have maintained their Form I to Form VI colleges.

It is important for those who are the critics of elitism to evaluate the impact and the merits and demerits of the above policy: Was it a progress or a regress?

•       2005-2010 — Labour Government

During this period, the Form I to From VI colleges were re-established. This was a policy adopted by the Labour government. The issue of elitism was not evacuated. Since this is an entrenched legacy, it was not considered wise and practical to do away with the legacy, abruptly, with a stroke of the pen. With the re-establishment of Form I to VI colleges, most of the “non-star” colleges found themselves in a situation to retain their bright elements and to redouble their efforts to improve quality. This process has produced undisputable positive results. The celebrated “heroes and heroines” of the 2016 batch of laureates — as in the past years — have been hailed as those coming for the “non-star colleges”, mostly rural institutions, and deprived socio-economic backgrounds.

The overall impact of the Form I to VI policy has been to further democratise the traditional elite and also to improve the standard of education offered by the “non-star colleges”. If this process were to be maintained, we can expect further positive developments in terms of social mobility in the years to come.

But will this be the case or will it be a slightly modified version of the Form I-V and From VI colleges – a case of putting the clock back?

•       2014… Lepep Government

The Lepep government has decided to convert the star National Colleges into Academies as from 2020. As in the past (2000-2005), the bright students of From III of “non-star” colleges will be encouraged to migrate to the Academies. This process is inevitable. Once again the “non-star” colleges, predominantly of the rural areas, will be deprived of the opportunity to excel, as they have been doing in the past years, and to make their contribution towards the democratisation of the elite and the improvement of their educational processes. Will this not be yet another failed policy?

Coincidentally, once again the confessional colleges have so far remained aloof from the proposed formula of Form IV to From VI Academies (Grade 10 to Grade 13)… a revisited version of Form I to IV and Form VI colleges of the past.

Conclusion

The laureate scheme has been an integral part of our education system and is strongly engrained in the psyche of the Mauritian population. Its main focus has been to recognise and reward efforts and promote excellence. If it mostly benefitted a traditional elite in the past, with policy changes since 2005, there has been a process of democratisation of that elite and this is explained by the excellent performance of many of the sons and daughters of our soil who come from deprived socio-economic backgrounds. This process has also provided “non-star”, mostly rural colleges, the opportunity to revisit their educational processes and improve their standards.

In its present form, the laureate scheme is not perfect and needs to be revisited and improved. If handled properly, it can still serve some useful purpose. If mishandled, it can be the source of more harm than good.

So let us not repeat the mistake of the past and run the risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater…

 Dharam Gokhool

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