The Nine-Year Schooling reform is neither the panacea it was sold to be nor do the outcomes justify the upheaval it has engineered
Schools have resumed this week around the country and, as every year, the fresh start comes laden with hopes and challenges for all pupils in our establishments. For the many who are simply graduating onto a new Form or Grade, it still means a time of excitement and anticipation as young minds prepare for novel learning objectives, subject matters and experiences.
For those migrating from early education to formal schooling at primary level, it is the start of a voyage where new friends and a new set of guides and tutors should complement the world view that up till then depended almost exclusively on parental and family value-sharing. Diverse family backgrounds, diverse cultures and traditions, diverse learning curves, diverse personalities facing diverse economic or other constraints meet in the school melting pot, that of the Republic still in the making. And it is a rather extraordinary tribute to primary school-teachers that, even if it means hitting somewhere in the middle between fast and slow learners, between the motivated and the disenchanted, despite stretched resources and often inadequate infrastructure, they still offer their dedication year after year.
For those pupils in transition from one organisational and pedagogical stage to another, typically from primary to secondary, the sense of having turned a page, reached a milestone or overcome an important hurdle will tinge the expectations that there now await new frontiers, new institutions, new teachers, perhaps a new locality and certainly many new friends with whom to share the growing difficulties and pleasures of adolescence, studies and fun.
Whether the college they end up in was their first choice or not, irrespective of the considerable efforts they have already offered over the final years leading to the Primary School Achievement Certificate (PSAC), whatever the irritation of their parents with the admission process, we trust those disappointments will be left aside and all pupils learn to find happiness, fortitude and resilience in the pursuit of their individual dreams and aspirations.
For those awaiting their SC and HSC results early in the year, we wish them the best, knowing that most of their teachers and educational establishments will have exerted their best efforts and considerable nurturing in guiding them to this stage. They stand poised to join the workforce or embark on further technical, trade or university studies to develop into the future generation of professionals, tradesmen, businessmen, service agents, politicians and civil servants their parents may have dreamt of and that the country will certainly rely on.
However we must also spare a thought for the many who for various reasons will opt out, or fail to pursue their traditional education, often without either a trade, a skill or a competency and it is not sufficient to hope that somehow they will lead fulfilling adult lives. It is undoubtedly a chronic problem that needs attention.
NYS in its first stage
This has not been an ordinary “rentrée scolaire” for pupils, their anguished parents and the somewhat anxious education establishment as the first year of application of the Nine-Year Schooling (NYS) reform kicked in. We have expressed it here: the Minister, her team of advisors, administrators and institutional support, cannot be faulted for having shown willingness to engage in reform and the determination to forge ahead with what is an upheaval.
We have commended the fact that all pupils emerging from primary schools, irrespective of grade, have now to attend school for a minimum of a further three or four years (the “extended stream” designed for former CPE failures), applauded the well-meaning attempts at remedial efforts for those pupils struggling to cope with the traditional education system and welcomed the cohort of measures to introduce more all-round, holistic education, including sports, civic education and performing arts.
Undoubtedly the Minister’s long background from the profession has contributed greatly to those commendable features being implemented, even if somewhat precipitously by the concerned agents of change. None of these are really at issue with the NYS reform program, the beef is elsewhere.
When announced and framed in documents, flowcharts and PowerPoint proposals around mid-2015, the NYS reform came without any clear statement of problems to be tackled, nor a set of specific objectives against which we might today have weighed up success even at this early implementation stage. To assess the effectiveness of NYS under these circumstances, one can either assume the educational problems being tackled or resort to the more circuitous route of assessing NYS outcomes and their impact.
Assessing the outcomes
In the first approach, some observers might consider that excessive competition at CPE for decent or “star” colleges, the fate of consistently high failure rates at CPE or the pervasive phenomenon of private tuition deserved priority attention while others could add or argue that classroom logistics, teacher work-conditions, the phenomenon of school drop-outs or the absence of skill and trade training were equally worthy objectives of concern. The point is we simply don’t know and can’t second-guess unstated reform objectives of the Education establishment, unless, that is, we kow-tow the premise that everything was wrong with our system and had to be shouldered overboard.
So we are indeed left with little else than to consider the NYS reform in terms of its key outcomes, however predictable they might have been from the start. They have been amply commented upon here and elsewhere and we will spare readers the bore. We can simply quote two trade-unionist bones of discontent with the outcomes of NYS.
Yahia Paraouty of UPSEE, a consistent critic, has recently rather forcefully described the NYS program of reforms as a “fiasco”, deploring the lack of meaningful consultations by the Ministry with concerned stakeholders. Mr Suttyhudeo Tengur of the GHTU, otherwise known to publicly support the Minister’s NYS reforms, admitted in an interview to Le Defimedia of 4th december, that meritocracy would be flouted with the new college admission process. We can quote his answer to the question “Why are you defending the criterion of meritocracy?”
La plupart des Mauriciens qui occupent des postes de responsabilité aujourd’hui et tous les autres sont des produits du critère de mérite. Je peux vous dire qu’ils n’ont rien eu en cadeau, ce sont leurs efforts qui sont reconnus. Lorsqu’il n’y a pas de mérite, il n’y a pas d’équité. Ce changement dans l’exercice d’admission (from CPE to PSAC) est le vœu de l’électorat que je respecte, mais cela va nous faire du tort. La méritocratie doit régner, parce qu’elle est transparente et valorise l’élève.
To the Establishment, merit-based access will simply be displaced to the State’s prized 4-year “Academies” that will take over the current full 7-year National Colleges. To children, parents and educators nationwide this spells an ominous few years ahead, with a renewed race for very limited Academy seats with all the stress, harassment, private tuition and financial implications. Worse and far more disturbing for social quiescience or even equity, this novel “rat race” will concern only those who relied and continue to rely on the public sector for quality education opportunities. Is it any wonder that several thousand parents, including we read some top Education cadres, have rushed, queued and stampeded for admission to confessional colleges? Others who have the means will quietly shift their children to private fee-paying providers for which demand is exploding. Is the public sector’s role in education, so historically instrumental to furthering development, being radically transformed?
The NYS reform aggravates and extends competition, invites the expansion of private tuition, restricts access to quality public education for the better-off segments of the population, replaces “star” National Colleges by “star” regional colleges and re-introduces the distorting barrier of regionalism that inevitably works in favour of the urban folk. As evidenced by the recent stampede, it significantly skews the balance towards private and confessional education providers while doing little to address the problems of extended stream students. Some of the useful reform elements, like remedial support or holistic education efforts did not depend on NYS to be implemented. In short, NYS is neither the panacea it was sold to be nor do the outcomes justify the upheaval it has engineered.
We have ourselves in this column concurred that no education system is perfect, resources are not unlimited, no reform proposal can expect a full consensus of all concerned parties and that government, even if it ignores alternative voices and suggestions, has the undoubted authority to reform a creaking system for better outcomes. There is indeed a necessity to redesign our education system into a robust platform for tomorrow’s generations, blending both improved traditional long-haul education pathways with novel strategies for skill and competency development opportunities that meet the country’s evolving needs. It is certainly not beyond the wealth of talents and competencies in our educational community to expect and aim for better outcomes.
* Published in print edition on 12 January 2018