“If a school like Bambous SSS gets a 44% pass rate at HSC, what happens to the other 55%?

Interview: Dr Teeluck Bhuwanee – Educationist

Given the present trends, after Grade 9 when 25% students will fail, and have no further prospects, what future will they have?’
* ‘We are wasting some Rs 8 bn on secondary education when we consider that some 25% fail their HSC, so many fail to get the required credits to be promoted to Lower Six, some 25% fail SC’

Dr Teeluck Bhuwanee has spent some 10 years in UNESCO as a Programme Specialist in the Regional Office in Dakar in 2004. His main mission was to provide strategic planning advice to the member states as well as for strengthening the programming and implementation capacity of the UNESCO Office in Dakar and its personnel. Afterwards he went to Haiti where, following the devastating earthquake there, he helped in rebuilding the education system. He was Registrar of the University of Technology, Mauritius (UTM), Senior Lecturer at MCA and MIE and also Rector for many years. In this interview he brings a breath of fresh air through his candid views on the current educational issues in Mauritius, with no-holds barred comments on, amongst others, the laureate system and on Nine-Year schooling.

Mauritius Times: The HSC results were proclaimed this week, and as usual the laureates were celebrated by parents, teachers and school friends. Most of those who spoke to the press have expressed the intention to come back, but there are also others who are quite likely to settle down overseas, given better employment opportunities there or in some cases for lack of employment perspectives here. What’s the point of maintaining a State-funded system that’s sponsoring brain drain?

Teeluck Bhuwanee: State-funded scholarship is part of a whole inherited system that favours elitism. It is part of a colonial structure that needed at one time to have the best and the brightest to support the colonial administration at different professional levels (for the civil service). The British did not see the need to send their own nationals to run the administration or establish an imported clerical cadre (incidentally unlike the French who brought their own people to run their colonies, which contributed to the poverty and downfall of most ex-French colonies). Therefore the state-funded scholarships’ aim was to provide the best university education for the locals to return home and get the highest paid jobs in the civil service.

When we became independent we maintained the same system of state-funded scholarship even though we developed our own tertiary system. We made significant changes to the system such as creating different streams (Arts, Science, Economic, Technical, etc), and to promote gender parity the scholarships were to be awarded to the same number of boys and girls. The question remains whether we should continue this system after 50 years of independence.

I still remember in the early 2000s, when I was Registrar of the University of Technology (UTM), committees were set up by TEC to enquire into the system and many proposals were made (such as providing financial incentives, etc). Much progress had been made but the recommendations were never implemented for political reasons.

We need to ask the question: what is the present rationale behind the state-funded scholarships, when we will not provide the best jobs to those we sponsor? To promote more effort in our young school leavers? To reward those who have done very well? To invest in our best and brightest? In all these cases, the answer is the present laureate scheme is far from achieving any of these.

Our laureates are those who succeeded in passing an examination and got the best grades. The present examination system rewards rote learning, strict preparation for examinations (a repetition of the present PSAC or CPE where examination question papers are rehearsed and students drilled to answer questions). I heard some teachers on MBC-TV saying that those who fail are those who are irrelevant, who do not understand the questions or fail to answer them. So if a student is able to master answering examination questions, he or she can do very well though he or she may not have attained a good educational level. Thus passing HSC or getting very good grades may not be the only indication of educational achievement.

* There is also the issue of returns that our education system is delivering: if we consider the costs and all the inputs that go into financing the current education system notwithstanding the adjustments past reforms have introduced, it would appear that the result in terms of returns is still far from satisfactory. The good-to-excellent HSC results scored by many of our State and private schools in preceding years as well as this year’s should not mask this reality, isn’t it? What’s your take on that?

We are wasting our financial resources (some 8 billion rupees on secondary education) when we consider that some 25% fail their HSC, so many fail to get the required credits to be promoted to Lower Six, some 25% fail SC and so many drop out before SC . No business model can allow wastage of at least Rs 2 billion every year. I am not even talking of poor quality grades that some 50% students get.

Now with all the money invested in our laureates, it is not surprising that most “laureates” do not return to Mauritius, when they are not sure to get the right job, to remain unemployed. Listening to them, hardly anyone said they would study any of the priority sectors for Mauritius (transportation, ocean economy, innovative technologies, etc). So even our “laureates”, who should be our brightest minds, are seeped in the past, have an old mindset, and are afraid to innovate.

Employers are constantly saying that our students are not suitable for our local market, that they require re-training and every sub-sector of the system blames the other sub-sector (secondary sector blames the primary, universities blame the secondary, etc). For me this is a terrible waste and unfortunately our corporate pedagogues consider that we are making tremendous progress in all the educational sub-sectors. We could very well have done even better with half this budget, if there was greater internal efficiency.

* Why is it that we have to date been unable to really reform the system such that it would do this country proud, meet its development needs as well as promote the intellectual growth of our students? Is it because of lack of political will? Too many vested interests?

A reform requires vision, conviction, strategic thinking, effective communication and determination. The present reform not only shows an absence of vision but also a lack of conviction on the part of those driving the change, a total disregard for the dynamics of change. An educational reform has eventually become a schooling reform (Nine Year Schooling). We always tell everyone to think OUT OF THE BOX. Yet, in the present structure, we have boxed every part of the education system. Look at the different illustrations in the document “Inspiring Every Child” prepared by “specialists”. Every part of education is boxed and there are no bridges.

All change gurus will tell you that to manage change you have to develop a planned approach to change and to maximize the collective benefits for all people involved in the change, and minimize the risk of failure of implementing the change. Even the change process requires vision and strategy, excellent communication of the vision, generating Short-Term Wins. If you look at what is happening you will find the Ministry staff is more concerned with which child goes to which school and how admissions will be managed with least problems for the Ministry.

* It’s quite unlikely that we do not have the local competencies to undertake the reform that is required, isn’t it? Or are we addressing the wrong questions and therefore getting the wrong answers?

We certainly have a lot of local competencies available in different places. If you have a vision and if you really want to succeed, you will look for the competencies wherever they exist, irrespective of political or parochial interests. But if you limit your search to condescending officers and parasitical consultants, you get the kind of staff that will say yes to all your calls. The Ministry is full of educational administrators, not of educational planners. Many “civil servants”, interested in their survival at the ministry or contracts, remain typical civil servants, not “reformers”. They can handle some change elements and that is all we have got in the Nine Year Schooling.

Most educational staff in the ministry or educational parastatal institutions are basically interested in change, not reform, safeguarding their own interests because this is not an educational reform at all. That is why at one time you will hear mention of 9 Year Continuous Basic Education and in the same vein talk of 9 Year Schooling. For many of these actors, education is equal to schooling. Besides, the 9 Year Continuous Basic Education booklet (called NYCBE pdf.booklet on the Education website) entitles the document “Inspiring Every Child” as Nine Year Schooling (NYS).

The NYCBE hardly takes into account international educational trends, and we forget that with a life expectancy of some 70 years, the child who is in Grade 7 in 2018 will live till the year 2080. Are we helping parents and teachers prepare these children to be productive in the second half of this century, keeping in mind fast technological developments? We are not even sure which jobs will be available in the next 20 years, and yet look at the curriculum: PSAC examination is no different from CPE past papers, and SC and HSC are basically examinations to pass.

* The Nine Year Schooling reform, implemented as from this year, has been criticised for a number of reasons, namely for intensifying the pressure on students right from Grade 4 up to Grade 9, and further still until the end of secondary education (more pressure would mean more private tuitions). There is also concern about the additional discrimination the Reform introduces: admission to Grade 7 to be done on a regional basis in public sector schools, whilst students in the private education sector will be able to pursue their secondary education as from Grade 7 till the end of their secondary schooling – resulting, as from this year itself, in more and more parents opting for the confessional secondary schools. What will the educational landscape look like in 5-10 years if this Reform is not rolled back?

I have worked for a very long time at secondary levels, both in Mauritius and at international levels (at UNESCO I initiated the Basic Education in Africa Programme quoted in the document “Inspiring Every Child” on page 3). In Mauritius we have four types of schools with each having its own culture.

State schools have a culture and climate of their own. With complete state control (via its Directorates, both ministerial and zonal levels), state schools have hardly any autonomy. Heads of schools and educators are transferred regularly thus we have a culture based on completing the syllabus and preparing students for passing exams – at best they are the types that produce more than 5 laureates each year and thus remain the first choice of parents because the state-funded scholarships remain a major attraction. At worst, they have poor results, but most of all are plagued with indiscipline. There is hardly any vision that the Head may have for his/her school that he/she can communicate to the other stakeholders, because he/she is not sure how long he/she will remain posted in that school. Same with teachers. The students’ performance will depend more on their socio-economic status rather than the other input factors from the school.

Then you have private schools (excluding confessional schools). These schools have more autonomy than state schools and in some cases are seen as the “property” of the owners; they have a better possibility to develop a vision and mission. The better ones are able to attract a few good students who will eventually end up being a laureate one year. They will also do reasonably well in terms of examination results. The schools that have a manager or principal who is committed to educational ideals will succeed, but the worst ones remain committed to making profits and the success of students will depend on a lot of other factors. However, we have to acknowledge that, given the quality of student input, the better private schools are doing a much better job than their state school counterparts.

Next we have the “confessional schools”. Under the purview of either the Catholic Church, Hindu Authority or Islamic Authority, the policy and aim of these schools is not necessarily to mass produce educated people who pass exams but stress is also laid on the quality of education, the personal development and moral formation of the individual. Thus the culture of these schools is determined by the kind of relationships that exist among different members of the school community, the religious authority and the participation of parents. The more positive culture is the bedrock for the effective running of the school. Unlike state schools, a proper environment, proper moral and academic support, more effective relationships between the religious authority, the parents, the head, teachers, pupils and staff contribute largely to the effectiveness of these institutions.

Finally you have the MGI and MGSSS that share similar characteristics as the “confessional schools”, though they are also regarded as State schools.

You are right that increasingly parents will be keen to send their children to “confessional” schools that have a long history of “sound” education. MGI has proved to be very good as well but now that it will not admit Grade 7 pupils the onus of their success will lie on the shoulders of the MGSSS. Time will tell whether they perform well in future. State schools will continue to get worse, as they admit those that fail PSAC exams as well and the more fortunate students will be the ones who live close to the “confessional” schools and the better state schools (due to regionalisation). Will this lead to the migration of students to the areas where there are the better schools and will we again find the need for police clearance to be admitted to these schools? Time will tell.

* What about the higher education sector? There has been so much change in this sector over the last 10 years, and the government is coming now with a Higher Education Bill. Does your reading of the Bill convince you that this is what is needed to address the shortcomings as well as matters of legislation, policies and regulatory institutions ‘to brand the country as a reputable international tertiary hub, opening wider opportunities on the regional development front’?
I am not convinced that any new bill will by itself address the shortcomings of the Higher Education sub-sector. Unless there is a total rethink of the purpose of education from pre-primary to university, and unless we see the role of higher education from a holistic perspective and its linkages with the other sub-sectors (especially post-secondary Technical and vocational institutions), the bill will remain another box in the whole diagram. Like I said earlier, you can’t say you will first fix the admission to secondary schools and its related policies without looking at what goes before and after. Education is a continuum and all parts need to be looked into in their related interconnections and complexities.

* In a comment on higher education across the world, ‘The Economist’ in its latest edition says that governments ‘tend to overestimate the benefits and ignore the costs of expanding university education’ – ‘as more young people seek degrees, the returns both to them and to governments are lower… employers demand degrees for jobs that never required them in the past and have not become more demanding since’. It recommends instead ‘micro-credentials – short, work-focused courses approved by big employers in fast-growing fields…’ That should strike a chord with our unemployed graduates, but do we have a different context here?

There has been a great deal of discussion on the need for more graduates from universities and you will recall a previous Minister of Higher Education making it his obsession with a graduate in every family. Increasingly, however, the world is changing so fast and in such a state of flux that we have to adapt to new technologies, to more innovations and more complex societies. Unfortunately, our universities (including traditional universities in developed countries) have remained bogged down by their inflexible structures (senate, academic board, councils and what have you), vested interests of their staff and poor connections with the world of work.

Having said that, universities will continue to play increasingly important roles in modern society, as crucial national assets in addressing many government policy priorities, and as sources of new knowledge and innovative thinking; providers of skilled personnel and credible credentials; contributors to innovation; attractors of international talent and business investment; agents of social justice and mobility; contributors to social and cultural vitality; and determinants of health and well-being.

As Michael Porter of Harvard Business School commented: “Skilled human resources and knowledge resources are two of the most important factors for upgrading national competitive advantage.” The potential of the university is to be the direct driver of the knowledge-based economy. For Geoffrey Boulton, Vice-Principal of the University of Edinburgh, “many policymakers, however, increasingly appear to regard universities as supermarkets for a variety of public and private goods that are currently in demand”. The university graduate should be provided with the knowledge that an unpredictable future may need. University graduates should not be job seekers in the traditional sense of the term. Universities serve to make students think. They do so by feeding and training their instinct to understand and seek meaning. True teaching should seek to disturb complacency. University graduates should be taught not just to get jobs but to question interpretations that are given to them, to reduce the chaos of information to the order of an analytical argument and to seek out what is relevant to the resolution of a problem.

* What do you propose as possible solutions?

Unless there is a complete paradigm shift that will look at the whole system from kindergarten to post-secondary education, in a holistic manner, including whether we continue with the laureates (state scholarships), what status we give to polytechnics, how universities will not produce “mediocre” graduates and how MIE will not produce “mediocre” teachers now that MIE has been granted the right to award degrees, no reform will be successful.

Rather than putting the cart before the horse, we should look at the exit profile of the student and design the curriculum to equip the students with appropriate skills accordingly. Right now we are starting with Grade 5-7, then the curriculum “experts” will move to grade 8, and then grade 9, incrementally from lower to upper grades.

What is also needed is a full definition of the achievement of a range of relevant learning outcomes that would prepare all learners for life, for citizenship, for work and for continued learning, regardless of mode of provision.

We must re-think the purpose of education (not just schooling) and reduce examination syllabus driven teaching and find alternative assessment methods. For example, when IB (International Baccalaureate) mentions skills, it also lays out in detail how these skills will be gained (such as portfolios and assessment of these, not just examinations).

We have to redefine the role of parents in the school, not the traditional PTA, but a more active participation in building effective partnerships between parents, families and schools to support children’s learning that will lead to improved learning outcomes.

We must not leave out a whole section of the population that have special needs, children who have differentiated abilities, who have some comparative form of handicap (psychologically, physically, emotionally or mentally). They are also citizens of this country and need to be given due attention.

Ultimately we need to re-think the role of schools in a rapidly changing technological environment. Schools should be reconceptualised as “learning organisations” that can react more quickly to changing external environments, embrace innovations in internal organisation, and ultimately improve student outcomes

* One other matter that has lately become a very serious cause for concern for all stakeholders in the education sector is the proliferation of synthetic drugs all over the place as well as in our schools – mostly secondary, it would seem, at this stage. The collaboration of educationists and school managements will surely be required to deal with this major issue. But the question is: how do we address this matter?
I am really worried about students who will enter Grade 7 having failed to get pass mark at the PSAC. I hear teachers mention their difficulties when faced with an amalgam of students who have passed and failed PSAC. These students who cannot cope are a breeding ground for the proliferation of all kinds of social ills. Imagine the students who are unable to get some 30% at the PSAC exams in some 5 subjects continuing with an additional 5 subjects and having to cope with so many new subjects and new teachers and a new environment.

Already indiscipline is a major problem in many state schools. I am not targeting any area or school but if a school (like Bambous SSS) gets a 44% pass rate at HSC, what happens to the other 55%? In our secondary schools, given the present trends, after Grade 9 when 25% students will fail, and have no further prospects, what future will they have, unless in their own regional schools they are allowed to go to Grade 10? They will not be admitted to Academies. They will probably have no place in the technical schools. What future will they have at the age of 15 with literally no prospects in life and for parents to be able to help them?
Ask any secondary school teacher about which classes create more problems for them and all will say Form 4 students, as they move into a difficult stage of adolescence. Has the reform given due consideration to that? I just hope our policy makers will not say “we will cross the bridge when we reach it” or future elections after 2 years will find the solutions!

 

* Published in print edition on 9 February 2018

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