Ending the Rat Race

Educational policy and reform initiatives have always attracted interest and stirred passions everywhere in the world.

This is as it should be because our future and that of our children depend on the education that is dispensed in our public and private schools and our higher centres of learning. Some countries have triumphantly brought their educational reforms to a successful conclusion. Singapore’s recent education reforms have brought sweeping changes to the country’s teaching, learning and school curriculum; its education system is already described as « world-leading » and in 2010 was among those picked out for commendation by the British education minister. Others have done equally well: the higher education system in Nordic countries have gone through a series of reforms to make them more efficient and responsive to the needs and aspirations of their populations. In other places, education reforms have quite often been frustrated by vested interests or even met with wide public disapproval.

In Singapore, the best performing children are selected at the pre-primary stage, and given the best possible education. In Mauritius, we tend to give the greatest amount of attention to the weakest children. Even so, it must be acknowledged that the education system in Mauritius has, despite its imperfections, served this country relatively well. The fact that we have been able to graduate from a mono-crop economy into manufacturing and lately into the services sector, has been largely, perhaps uniquely, due to the education factor. There is more or less widespread recognition among vast swathes of the Mauritian population of the importance of this enabling and transformative factor, which explains the ‘rat race’ for the « star schools » by parents all over the island for the best educational opportunities – an absolutely legitimate aspiration — for their wards. The Certificate of Primary Education (CPE) exams have unfortunately earned a bad name in the process for the stress and intense competition it has introduced into the system. Calls for its abolition and that of its «« partner in evil », private tuition, have come from different quarters over the last two decades, but even so successive governments have been unable to come up with an alternative solution to the issue of access to secondary schools, one of the principal objectives of the examination.

Former Minister Obeegadoo tampered with the system in the early 2000s, and his proposals foundered on the rocks of public mistrust due to the perceived discriminatory nature of the measures he had proposed – especially the one in relation to regionalisation which was imposed on public and private secondary schools while State-funded confessional schools were allowed to maintain their Form I to VI streams. In the process, the public star colleges would simply have lost their clout while the confessional star colleges – the St Esprit, St Joseph, etc – would have gained in importance and attractiveness to Mauritian parents.

Education Minister Dr Vasant Bunwaree has lately come up with what he terms as a “major reform programme” – the Nine Year Schooling System. Dr Bunwaree has sought support from the submission made by the Commonwealth Ministerial Working Group to the high level panel of eminent persons (UN) which highlighted “the need for countries to stress for a 9-year schooling as part of the Development Agenda for the post 2015. He stated to Parliament that his proposal rests on “the philosophy of being fair and equitable to all learners and more adapted provisions for learners… it seeks to do away with high-stake examinations at the early age of 11 years”. The new system will comprise (a) Early Childhood Care (3-4 years), Basic Schooling (5-14 years), following which different pathways and opportunities would be open to students, both in the academic and professional streams, in the third Post-nine year schooling (14-18 years).

Minister Bunwaree is hopeful of producing solutions to the enormous space and logistics problems that will arise during the transition. Space will be required to house the classes that will hold the Seventh Standard in 2015, the Seventh and Eighth Standards in 2016, and Seventh, Eighth and Ninth Stands in 2017. Obviously these classes cannot be accommodated in the existing primary schools, nor would it be wise to do so even if such space were available. In addition to whatever education they receive, the children of those classes will be going through the important changes that will take them from childhood through puberty to adolescence. Teachers must be specially trained to look after them. Should the space required come from all existing secondary schools or from just some of them? Will some secondary schools be set aside completely for these classes? We look forward to the necessary clarifications from Minister Bunwaree with baited breath.

We would like remind all concerned that former Education Minister Sir Kher Jagatsingh, with his idea of Junior Secondary Schools (JSS), for Forms I-III students, had already foreshadowed this development way back in the seventies.

The Minister of Education is also today the Minister of Human Resources. We believe that Minister Bunwaree should take time to explain how we are going to deal with our manpower requirements in future. We should be self-sustaining not only in energy, food, and other material requirements but also in our manpower requirements. Are we always going to have to rely on imported labour for our construction projects? What happens then to the newly recruited office employee who wants to build himself a house? Will he also have to go to India or China for workers?

Whether the new system that is being proposed will facilitate “the preparation of our children for life in a very conducive environment so that they can be transformed into global citizens” remains to be seen. But it is a pity that it has come rather late in the day – politically speaking – after almost three years in office and some 18 months away from the next general elections. Major reforms are best proposed and implemented early during the mandate of a sitting government – not on the eve of elections when all manner of lobbies and vested interests are better equipped to shoot down major reform proposals, how-ever well-intentioned they may be.

Already spokespersons of confessional schools have given an inkling into the probable response of the Catholic authorities to the Nine Year Schooling programme especially with regard to the question of admission. At the end of the day, the State will have to decide whether it bears the responsibility for deciding the country’s education policy and the funding thereof. It will require a lot of skilful political manoeuvring to get all the stakeholders, including the confessional authorities, on board to see the reform programme through. If Minister Bunwaree succeeds, that would amount to a major achievement for himself — and the present government.

 


* Published in print edition on 22 November 2013

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