Education Freefall


By M.K.

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 led their educational reforms to a successful conclusion. Singapore’s reforms have brought about sweeping changes to the country’s teaching, learning and school curriculum; its education system is already described as « world-leading » and has been repeatedly picked out for commendation by different education ministers around the world.

Others have done equally well: the higher education system in Nordic countries has 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.

It must be acknowledged that the education system in Mauritius has, despite its imperfections, served this country relatively well for a number of decades. 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 unfortunately earned a bad name in the process for the stress and intense competition it introduced into the system. Calls for its abolition and that of its «« partner in evil », private tuition, came from different quarters.

Following Minister Kadress Pillay’s education reform plan and his mixed schools proposals which were shot down by his Cabinet colleagues, Minister Obeegadoo tampered with the system in the early 2000s, and his proposals floundered 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 – St Esprit, St Joseph, etc – would have gained in importance and attractiveness to Mauritian parents.

Much of the harm inherent in the Obeegadoo reform – in fact and in deed a social re-engineering plan bolstered by the discriminatory measures in favour of State-funded confessional schools — was undone subsequently by Minister Dharam Gokhool. But, as it could be expected, the latter earned a bad press, and he unfortunately did not benefit from the support of the then political leadership to face the onslaught from the press and vested interests.

Education Minister Dr Vasant Bunwaree later came up with what he termed as a “major reform programme” – the Nine Year Schooling System. Dr Bunwaree had 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 post 2015″. He stated to Parliament that his proposal rested 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 comprised (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).

We now have Minister Leela Devi Dookun-Luchoomun taking up from there and coming up with her “Nine Year Continuous Basic Education” reform, which was presented barely seven months after her taking office, and which has restructured our primary to secondary school system. Spokespersons of confessional schools had already since the beginning given an inkling into the response of the Catholic authorities to the Nine Year Schooling programme, especially with regard to the question of admission, and the BEC has finally opted out of the Nine Year Continuous Basic Education reform. The State has again not lived up to its responsibility as the mandated arbiter for deciding the country’s education policy and the funding thereof and for getting all the stakeholders, including the confessional authorities, on board to see the reform programme, whatever its weakness, through.

Our contributor S. Callikan has written extensively on the good aspects but also weaknesses of Minister Dookun-Luchoomun’s proposals since they were made public. It’s at the implementation stage that the main stakeholders – in the main parents around the country – are becoming alive to the words of caution as expressed by our contributor. Had some of them at least been heeded by the national authorities, we may not been faced as we are now with many of what appear to be insuperable problems.

We have since the past 25 years or more been running round in circles with about five reform plans under the tutelage of an equal number of ministers, each practically undoing what his predecessor had put in place and that at the cost of billions of rupees to the public exchequer. That the institution that is expected to give direction and guidance in matters relating to examinations has allegedly taken upon itself not to make public detailed results of the 2018 School Certificate exams speaks eloquently about the efficiency of our education system – and even more about the transparency that is so much touted by the regime. It is clearly evident that the level is going down. It behoves the authorities therefore to fulfil their mandated role so as to prevent the further downgrading of an already deteriorating system, for that will truly be catastrophic for the country’s future.

Further, the populist measure in favour of free tertiary education, which as commentators have highlighted (vide R. Khushiram’s article in this issue – ‘Free Tertiary Education for All: A Blunder’) may produce outcomes contrary to what is being touted as being pro-poor, and thus defeat the very purpose for which it is sought to be introduced. No decision is in stone, and it is still possible to revisit this decision and its long-term implications so that potential aspirants are not misled down a point of no return. We certainly do hope that some wisdom will prevail.

* Published in print edition on 25 January 2019

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