By Teeluck Bhuwanee
It is time to bring together sociologists and linguists, education specialists, school heads and teachers to find the most appropriate solutions that will engage parents in the development of education as a whole
The 5 credits requirement crisis could create a lost generation of children whose life chances will have been irreparably damaged by a failure of the state to protect their right to education. Out of the 13,000 that have failed to get the required credits to go to HSC, some 1000 will get admitted to Polytechnics and a few may repeat their SC. That still leaves some 7000 that will get no further schooling. It is necessary to examine who these children are and why they are being left behind, and what concrete solutions can be found for making sure that no children are excluded from schooling and education.
If we accept the argument that stricter entry requirements will make students work harder, then we need to accept that at Primary School Achievement Certificate (PSAC) and post PSAC level, levels will go down and in short, we are lowering the standards of lower secondary education. Soon Upper secondary teachers and heads of school will complain that they are getting very low levels of students at the most difficult time of students’ development, the most tender age of puberty and adolescence.
Role of the family and home education
Numerous education pundits are attributing the failure of students in these outdated examinations to the fact that parents are not shouldering their responsibility. It is true that ‘home education’, that is the educational impact of the family on children is an essential element of the growing up process of all children. In various family environments, children acquire a variety of experiences, through performing various activities and being constantly exposed to a range of influence and expectations from the people they cohabit.
The foundations set in the first thousand days of a child’s life, from conception to the second birthday, are critical for the future well-being of any child. It is therefore vital that families have access to adequate health care, along with support to make the right choices for mothers and babies. In addition, access to good nutrition holds the key to developing children’s immune systems and the cognitive abilities they need in order to learn.
Parents, extended families and communities are the first teachers that children experience, and the dominant influence in their lives throughout their schooling years and beyond. The importance of parents for education is obvious from the direct links between people’s family background and their probability of success in and through education. Genetic factors, wealth and family networks are important for children’s education outcomes. Beyond these, engagement with and support to children’s schooling; exposure to cultural activities and availability of educational materials, such as books; and biases or stereotypes, such as unequal expectations for girls and boys, rich and poor, rural and urban, also matter tremendously for educational success.
Whether or not a child has a supportive home environment (e.g. free from violence, poverty, illiteracy, want, etc.) affects children’s ability to pursue and focus on schooling. Parental capacity to engage in their children’s education depends strongly on their own literacy and education awareness, suggesting a strong need for adult literacy and inter-generational learning emphasis.
The role of the State
All these, however, do not happen in a vacuum. We need to consider the physical, emotional, cultural, social, economic and moral dimensions that constitute the environment in which the family survives, both in the community and larger society where the child lives. However much pressure we may put on the parents and the family as an institution, the State has the responsibility to create the right physical, cultural, social, and economic conditions for the development of positive relationships. Just as when the State decided that it would increase the pension of old-aged people by re-distributing taxpayers’ money, the State has the moral obligation to ensure that it uses the same taxpayers money to ensure that all families have the right home atmosphere conducive to the development of each child.
While we take pride in saying that primary education is free for all in Mauritius, literacy remains among the most neglected of all education goals, with about 50% of Mauritian adults lacking basic literacy skills today. International reports have demonstrated that in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, including Mauritius, young adults with six years of primary schooling education have a 40% probability of being illiterate.
The links between early childhood care and education are strong and mutually reinforcing. Early childhood care and education services help build skills at a time when children’s brains are developing, with long-term benefits for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Infants who are stunted and come from disadvantaged backgrounds hardly receive psycho-social stimulation. In Mauritius, there is a wide gap in pre-primary school enrolment between the rich and poor. Part of the reason is that government has yet to assume sufficient responsibility for pre-primary education. Though, I am told, all primary schools in Mauritius have one classroom for kindergarten purposes, private providers remain the main caterers for some 50% of all enrolled children. The cost of private provision is one of the factors that contribute to inequity to access at that level.
The school and parents’ role
Parents influence matters at different levels. For instance, whether or not parents invest in cheap or expensive early childhood education (an educational sub-sector that is hardly regulated in Mauritius) matters hugely for cognitive and non-cognitive skills.
At the basic education level, parental engagement can include involvement in school management committees or parent associations, interactions with teachers, and support for school and homework. In Mauritius, however, most parents are unwanted at school. Parents-Teachers Associations exist only to collect contributions from parents and, except for the Association’s Chairperson, they hardly have any impact on school outcomes. They have no say in the type of teachers that teach, the curriculum delivery process, and lately even the Head of schools can be transferred at the whim and fancy of the education ministry. I hardly know of any school in Mauritius that has a “welcome” mechanism or policy to engage parents in school activities, except for some specific events.
Child protection services and other accountability mechanisms, such as truancy laws or parent-school meetings are required when parents are unwilling or unable to fulfil their responsibilities. While attendance of all children till the age of 16 is compulsory (if I am not mistaken), there are no ways and means to enforce this law. Heads of school complain that parents do not attend school when called upon. Most of the time, parents are “summoned” at school to hear negative remarks about their children’s misdemeanour. The most motivated parents and parent groups can influence a few education decisions that favour their own children. There is no provision in employment laws that encourage parents to take time off to attend schools.
Some parents play strong roles holding teachers to account. However, since parent interest groups often have narrower interests, including using schooling to give their children access to the most desirable peer groups to signal their exclusiveness, their political efforts can be at odds with the goals of equitable financing, integration or social mixing. When parents are bearing the brunt, covering sometimes at least two-third of education costs themselves, poor parents are at a terrible disadvantage.
Educating and engaging parents
As we recognise the hugely important role that parents play, and the heavy responsibilities on their shoulders for their children’s education, we should, at the same time, start to consider what mechanisms can be developed to provide effective support. Community support, accessible and understandable information on education, social care policies, employment conditions can help parents fulfil their responsibilities towards their children’s schooling and reward the efforts parents are putting in.
It is high time the community at large became sensitized to the importance of parental engagement in the education of their children. It is important to provide the right support and stop the blame game. It is time to bring together sociologists and linguists, education specialists, school heads and teachers to find the most appropriate solutions that will engage parents in the development of education as a whole in Mauritius. No student should be penalized if he/she has poor or irresponsible parents.
* Published in print edition on 7 February 2020