Education: Getting the Architecture Right

By Dr S. Callikan

A new government should do away with the Nine-Year Basic Continuous Education, its national Form III examination and the restricted so-called elite Academies. The fundamental inequities and distortions they have generated have already caused enough distress to countless parents, particularly from rural and less fortunate areas

Behind the facades of our education system, behind the success stories, behind the dedication of countless educators and the sacrifices of many parents and children, lies a somewhat starker reality. We must in all fairness recognise that it didn’t materialise in the last few years, nor even over this millennium. The necessity for a resilient and equitable education system adapted to our history, context and future aspirations should have underpinned the current Nine-Year Basic Continuous Education (NYBCE) reform but if that was the case, then has it delivered? It is time for a paradigm shift. 

History and both our previous colonial masters, UK and France, have left their inheritance and a deep imprint on the structure, processes and modalities of our secondary education system. It is not our purpose here to distinguish between them, but to note that ingrained in both educational lineages are factors resulting from their past, their colonial worldview and their ambitions to administer and tap resources of empires stretching far and wide. Former Education minister Obeegadoo, after his spell at UNESCO, recognises the realities of this inherited eco-system and its many obvious and subtler implications.

In matters relating to education, it translated into the standard 6+5+2 organisation of studies, the consequent development of standard curricula, teaching methods and materials to suit that organisation of student experiences and development. Three transition examinations mark that traditional pathway where a third, at best, will make it to University studies, a third will opt out after O- or A-levels, uncertain and with no guidance where to go, and another third will have fallen by the wayside – the inaudible casualties, generally left to their own devices.

The long-haul, knowledge stream

The fundamental tenets of this system have served those colonial environments and those centuries admirably; they have been replicated elsewhere in many former colonies, nurturing the development of “elites” who were ready, apt and willing for the long years of studies towards a professional degree opening doors to careers in medicine, law, engineering, avionics or finance. Every country needs those whose circumstances, aided by scholarships, enable them to reach for their academic potential, ready for a productive life and contribution to society only after some twenty years of studies from primary to the University arena.

We cannot stress enough that our public education sector has to make sure that those pathways of child development remain vibrant and that merit-based opportunities are expanded in safe and secure environments, in decently equipped schools and colleges, without the undue stresses of competitive pressures and the pervasive blight of private tuition.

The responsible adults of tomorrow who can stretch their faculties, who have honed their analytical skills, who have learnt to learn, who can adapt to fast-evolving technologies, who have a sense of awareness of environmental, social and global issues, will make their contributions felt here or elsewhere. Parents, front-line educators, MIE or Education specialists and the general public may all have their legitimate views and aspirations.

But the idea that public sector children and parents should be constrained or restricted artificially by SC credits, by ability to fund private tuition, by strict regionalisation or, worst of all, by the Ministry’s conversion of the former National Colleges into prized upper secondary “Academies” for the privileged few, has raised many questions of equity, access and meritocracy.

It is an unacceptable reversal of history’s wheels towards democratisation of access to quality education.


The medium-haul, competency stream

While striving to increase access and improve learning environments for the long-haulers, a resilient education system has to simultaneously engineer a new, more integrative pathway to develop skills and competencies-based outcomes. In an island where private sector operators, HRDC, Business Mauritius and government officials regularly complain about skills mismatch, an excessive focus on the traditional, knowledge pathway leaves thousands of middle-rung (neither in the top, nor in bottom third) pupils with sadly no skill or competencies after some 10-12 years of primary and secondary studies.

My neighbour, on the outskirts of a “Cité” is a modest but enterprising ordinary citizen, with welding and metalwork skills and jack-of-all-trades competencies in a variety of building and maintenance domains which enable him and his wife, working in a hotel kitchen, to grow the family and progressively expand his initial one-bedroom dwelling stepwise into today’s two-storey house with all amenities. His two adolescent kids were preparing their exit after Form V from college education a couple of years ago and both parents and children had only one and the same wish: get out of the system at the earliest.

The son today accompanies his dad on his job-rounds, learning welding, metal-working, maintenance, plumbing, mechanical and electrical skills along the way and has neither time nor interest for an MITD course. The daughter got similarly out of the system one year ago with great relief, works in a beautician saloon, earns her living while learning her own skills on the job.

Many parents and children in different family environments face similar circumstances, accepting that although literacy and numeracy may have been acquired, ten or twelve years of benches, teachers and schools will have provided no particular skill or competency set to their kids.

It is no doubt true that, by virtue of their own private efforts and “débrouillardise”, a fraction of those left-overs and drop-outs may find for themselves some apprenticeship or some technical and vocational training in one of the MITD or private centres. But we can certainly do better at structuring that medium-haul, competency-driven pathway which our colonial education lineage largely ignores.

Providing skill and competency pathways should start earlier in adolescent development and be integrated in educational pathways as equally valuable and viable options as the longer-haul streams.

In our age, skills and competencies are not just about plumbing, car/cycle mechanics, electrical or builder crafts, however important these remain. Competent telecom, phone, mobile, IT, refrigeration and automation repair, fashion designers, beauticians, laboratory technicians getting into the workplace far earlier than their long-haul counterparts will often do quite well for themselves, particularly if they have been exposed to some self-employment and entrepreneurship basics. In my nearby village, a once-modest PC repair guy five years ago, is now a bustling and respected main-street importer, distributor and maintenance agent for a variety of IT and mobile equipment and accessories.

Handling the disconnects

The third leg on which a more resilient education system should rest is the treatment of the disconnect issue. We are all aware of our tragically chronic situation where 25-30% of the nation’s children fail basic literacy and numeracy tests after 6 years of primary schooling and a further 20-25% who have struggled to get through with minimal pass scores. They are the tragic disconnects of our traditional system, generally inaudible, as neither they nor often their parents will be found marching the streets or raising a furore on airwaves and media. But needless to say, such cumulative and chronically ingrained levels of pedagogical “casualties” can only have pernicious repercussions on society.

Educators, administrators and front-liners know that root causes are derived from a complex mix of sociological and parental issues, but their symptoms are evident in classroom rowdiness, unhealthy peer influences inside and outside schools, abuse and resentment at educators, institutions, unadapted teaching methods and negatively felt examination or assessment targets. Trapped between the bored and the bright, educators have a hard time satisfying either and the brighter (or rather, their disenchanted parents) end up relying on private tuition and evening classes.

The UK and France, dealing with marginalised or difficult migrant environments, have been lately discovering acute and localised disconnect, leaving educators demotivated if not in permanent stress. Traditional education systems in those “Cités” remain helpless witnesses as children and adolescents revel in peer-led counter-culture and rampant behaviour. The increasing frequency of some similar occurrences here should give us pause to go beyond issuing circulars and notes to head-masters. Let us note that in our case the disconnect issue is chronic and should not be viewed in localised, communal or sociological contexts.

We of course cannot expect a public education system to address and solve all societal ills and problems, neither can we expect it, in our sociological context and an institutional cohabitation of private and public sectors, to satisfy fully all constituents and stakeholders. Though some attempts have been made to address the issue (ZEP schools, vacation classes, free meals,..), left-overs, disconnects and failures along the traditional or “noble” path of knowledge acquisition remain chronic. At such scales, treatment of the issue requires more than a charitable after-thought to keep them off the streets. The inadequacies are worsened by not even having meaningful medium-term orientations towards trade, industry or business sectors or productive self-employment.

The “extended” stream generated by the current Nine-Year Basic Continuous Education reform epitomises the consistent inability of the Education establishment to address the issue with a greater intent and some degree of effectiveness.

We note that one advisor, Carlo de Souza, accepting six months ago to give belated credence to the “extended stream”, has now resigned in some despondency at his failure on that score.

Development avenues for all

The strict and inflexible, narrow traditional education mould bodes no departures from curriculum and syllabus, frowns on alternative or multiple intelligences, disregards pupils’ individualities and development curves, considers the examinations and the result slip or certificate as the ultimate grail. It is relatively helpless and ineffectual at coping with children whose early family, peer and life experiences have exposed them to more distressing adult situations and feelings than their young years should bear.

As mentioned above, educators and their support institutions, need to be relevant and meaningful to those constituents who are looking for skill-sets, attitudes and values. That might also help frame novel approaches to avoid early signs and symptoms of distress with traditional education processes and methods turning into full-blown disconnect inside and outside classrooms.

Some private education providers have with considerable endeavour and spirit tried to provide some alternative education avenues often with minimal support from the Establishment. The Gandhian Basic School, the pre-vocational streams or the Collèges techniques of the Catholic Education Authorities come to mind and a lot can be gleaned from their experiences.

But our contention is that the challenge is not simply about another pre-voc or technical stream, too long discredited by its branding as the secondary pathway for the struggler. The third pillar challenge for a more resilient education system at primary-secondary levels is to plan and develop an alternative pathway, with retooled educators, pedagogical methods and processes alongside the familiar traditional system.

We do not need to re-invent the wheel entirely as lessons can be drawn from other success models which can be adapted to our inherently more complex environment after analysis against our specificities. This does not mean that other aspects (curriculum, pre-primary, special needs children or staff and infrastructure, to name a few) would be necessarily neglected. Indeed, some would say, the first few years of educational experiences are the fundamental crucible where future healthy education processes can settle in. But we must get the general architecture right. 

In the bid for re-organisation, a new government should do away with the Nine-Year Basic Continuous Education, its national Form III examination and the restricted so-called elite Academies, already rejected by private and confessional authorities but imposed on public sector children.

The fundamental inequities and distortions they have generated have already caused enough distress to countless parents, particularly from rural and less fortunate areas, facing closed doors for three successive years at the former merit-based access National Colleges.

It would have the unique opportunity to address the systemic reform of education towards a more resilient system. Some might say let’s go back to the status-quo ante and perhaps build a few more colleges. Simplistic as that may sound, it would certainly not address the issues of early competitive pressures effectively, nor any of the above issues adequately.

Others in the education sector may have their own views or, sometimes, their particular axe to grind. But we should all be engaged in more soberly defining the contours and modalities of a system that will stand the test of the times, provide development avenues for all and serve the country for the next fifty years.

If a paradigm shift is required, we have collectively the intellectual and pedagogical resources to integrate the new. Inspired political support will be essential for a more inclusive, equitable and resilient system based on our own context, resources, socio-political priorities and ambitions.

* Published in print edition on 24 May 2019

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