‘CPE-oriented ‘instruction’ is not what education is about’

Interview Suren Bissoondoyal

* ‘It is up to BEC to cope with it if they do not want to be part of the Dookun-Luchoomun reforms. It is sad and unfortunate anyway’

* ‘Why did the defenders of democracy seal their lips voluntarily and not argue that the eleven MPs who left the government last December should have also resigned as MPs’

Our guest this week is Surendra Bissoondoyal, who has had a long career in the educational sector covering all aspects from teaching to management, regulation and advice on reform. Currently he heads the Tertiary Education Commission. In this interview he comments on the Nine Year Schooling programme that is being rolled out as from this year, as well as on some current issues such as the drug situation and politics.

Mauritius Times: It appears that the number of young professionals/cadres and generally better-off Mauritians who are choosing to go for private schooling and are indeed investing a large amount of money years ahead for the purpose of reserving a seat in those private schools is on the rise. We are talking here of a minority who can afford such an expensive option, but this does point to a growing lack of faith in public schools. How do you react to that growing trend ?

Suren Bissoondoyal: In all democratic countries, the people have a choice. Those who can afford it will own bigger houses and the most expensive and latest cars. But they will also tend to go by the reputation of particular hospitals, schools or universities.

This is true of Mauritians also. So far as education is concerned some of them will want to send their children to those schools which are reputed to have the best facilities, infrastructure and system of education.

However, this is not a general reaction. At the primary level many people have come to realise that the highly selective CPE examination based on some written papers only negates what education should be about – the all-round development of the child. It is this aspect of our education system at the primary level that has made many parents seek a better environment for the ‘épanouissement’ of their children.

The main aim of the present ’Nine Year Continuous Basic Education’ is to give the child the opportunity to develop his/her talents and aptitudes in a more conducive environment. Children have to grow up as children and not be considered as robots; this stultifies their growth.

The growing trend for parents to send their children to fee-paying private schools reflects the disillusion of society with the CPE-oriented ‘instruction’, which is not what education is about.

However at the secondary level there is no such compulsion.

* Isn’t the same thing happening in the tertiary sector? Capacity is no doubt limited in the public sector, but we have heard so much from within about the lowering of standards and enrolment apparently going down with the University thus losing out to private higher education providers. What’s happening there and what is being done to reverse this trend?

We cannot generalise about the tertiary sector. All universities have criteria to abide by regarding the level of particular courses, assessment procedures, etc.

The public universities have done quite well up to now, but they need to improve and adapt to the demands of the labour market, which is not easy to do in a small country. In addition there is generally no “tenure” system. The staff who are recruited, including academic staff, have in principle security of employment until retirement. This prevents the universities from recruiting staff in new fields to respond to what the world of work needs in a fast changing environment. There are however ways of dealing with such problems, and I know that these are being looked into.

The private sector is a mixed bag. Some are internationally known, and parents would perhaps prefer to send their children to the local campuses of such universities which will help them to be more mobile. It is therefore not a question that the private sector globally is better than the public sector.

* We know of the political battles that have been waged since before independence to open up the education sector, to ensure equity and equality of chances for all. Much progress has been achieved, but most if not all reform plans since the Obeegadoo’s plan to this day have been mired in controversies. Would you agree with the proposition that politics have done a disservice to the public education sector, resulting in what the Federation of Civil Service and Other Unions (FCSOU) quality as “disrupted directional lines of change”?

Many people, even long before independence, have wanted the descendants of immigrants and slaves to have access to education. Jean Lebrun is a striking example, In the early 1950s, people like Sookdeo Bissoondoyal and Beekrumsing Ramlallah fought for the opening of more primary schools as there were no places for all of them in the existing primary schools.

But the Obeegadoo reforms during the MSM-MMM government of 2000-2005 were based on a report of a Committee chaired by myself and consisting of members from all levels of the education system. It was a very significant reform to get rid of the unhealthy selective aspect of the CPE examination. The first stage of the reform was very massively funded through the building of some 40 new secondary schools with all the required infrastructure.

But the government that was in power after 2005 just went back to the old system with all its ills. This is a tragedy that made us move backward instead of forward.

* The Nine Year Basic Education Reform of the present government will surely not escape the same fate as the earlier reforms, beginning with Obeegadoo’s. For having been closely associated with the earlier reform initiatives, would you say the one presently being implemented is what is required at this stage of the country’s development and the decades ahead?

People have now come to realise that our education system and its objectives, however good they may have been half a century ago, no longer respond to the needs of a modern society. They do not address either the requirements of a technologically based world of work, particularly with the application of ICT in almost all fields, or the needs of a society which cannot cope with the pressure modern living exerts on it.

It is therefore important that the public in general understands that the development of a child has to take into consideration his/her all round development – physical, aesthetic, concern for the environment, values etc. This is what the ’Nine Year Continuous Basic Education’ is about, and everybody should actively promote its implementation.

* To go back to the FCSOU’s opposition to the ‘Nine Year Continuous Basic Education’, it would seem they may have good reasons to do so: the validity and reliability of continuous assessment, in the absence of proper guidelines; absence of the terms of reference of Academies and no guarantee as to the objectivity of admission; double competition, one at Grade 6 and the other at Grade 9, which will have a negative bearing on the holistic development of the child and will accentuate the problem of private tuition… It goes on to say that the “9-year schooling project must have been pilot tested to assess all its strengths and weaknesses, bring appropriate fine tuning, look into ways and means to address the shortcomings ….” How do you react to these comments?

I agree that the validity and reliability of school-based assessment may not be what we all would like it to be. But all assessments have weaknesses. Can we say that a one-time assessment after six years of primary schooling gives us a very good evaluation of a child’s potential for further studies?

We have to follow the child throughout his/her schooling and help him/her whenever he/she cannot cope with some aspects of learning. This is of a greater value than a one-time assessment. Moreover pilot testing has been done and will continue to be done. But we have to understand that we are not assessing a child for ranking purposes as in the CPE but within a range of competencies, which is much broader.

* The Bureau de l’Education Catholique’s refusal (for pedagogical or other reasons) to participate in the NYS Reform through the conversion of any of its full seven-year secondary institutions into Form 4 to Form 6-only colleges – the (Academies) – where access will be restricted to those successfully competing in the new National Form 3 (Grade 9) examinations, will create a new and grossly unfair situation where only public school students will be subjected to the stress of a double competitive examination. No wonder then that the BEC will have to cope with an “explosion of demand” for the limited seats in its 13 colleges …

The BEC had the same reservations during reforms proposed by Steven Obeegadoo, but it is up to them to cope with it if they do not want to be part of the Leela Devi Dookun-Luchoomun reforms. It is sad and unfortunate anyway. I cannot say more.

* What is otherwise your reading of the situation prevailing in the country presently at all levels? Daily press coverage of happenings in our society can be quite depressing: road accidents kill as many if not more people than in the past; synthetic drugs are said to have found their way into many of our schools; domestic violence is killing more women than ever … What’s happening to Mauritian society?

I find that, in general, the public has accepted the reforms. The havoc that alcohol and drugs is causing to young people coupled with the problem of unemployment is making people think about the purpose of education, and how if well provided, can make a real difference in their life/lives.

There will be State elections in Punjab, India shortly. The people have identified that the biggest problem in the State is that of drug addiction, and they will vote for people who can address this problem. We have also to address this problem head on and deal with those who are behind this menace, whoever they may be.

* As far as the drug problem is concerned, a commission of enquiry is working on this question since May 2015. The matter seems pretty serious since there have been calls to bring back the death penalty. We now learn that the Commission would like to hear from some “avocats-parlementaries” about the inordinate number of times they would have allegedly gone visiting convicted drug dealers behind bars. What’s your take on that?

The drug problem is too big a menace to be resolved just by hanging a few persons. Whole societies are at risk and a worldwide concerted effort is required to stem its spread. Medical doctors, social workers, educationists and the media have to play a more vigorous role to warn young people about the effects of drug consumption. The police, customs and immigration officers and all members of the public have to be roped in to denounce drug traffickers until they are caught and made to languish in jail.

No single entity will be able to tame this scourge, whether it be a government or a religious authority. It is society itself which has to stand up to drug traffickers as one person.

* There has not been much by way of concrete achievements by the government, and internal bickering and various other allegations involving persons close to the regime have not helped the government’s public image either. Do you think a change in leadership will help improve matters for the government – and the country?

It is true that, up to now, there have not been many visible concrete achievements. But there are many proposed developments in the pipeline, and we should hopefully start seeing the results soon.

* The opposition has been saying that the country should go back to the polls if Sir Anerood Jugnauth decides, for health or whatever reasons, to step down in favour of his son. We know what the Constitution provides for in terms of eligibility for the PM’s post. However it would appear, according to a latest poll conducted on behalf of a daily, that almost 70% of respondents support the view that any “passation de pouvoir” should obtain popular sanction. Your opinion?

Mauritians in general think they have the expertise to talk on every issue imaginable. It is of course the democratic right of every Mauritian, not just of all politicians, to have an opinion on every issue. But, as a French saying goes, “contenter tout le monde est chose impossible”.

If we have to listen to every self-proclaimed expert on the course a government has to take to have a new Prime Minister every time it is necessary to do so, we should have offered that advice to all governments in the world, in particular to the British government when David Cameron resigned as Prime Minister and before Theresa May was selected by the Conservative Party to replace him.

By the way why did the defenders of democracy seal their lips voluntarily and not argue that the eleven MPs who left the government last December should have also resigned as MPs because they were elected as candidates in an alliance which won the elections collectively?

I can now sit back and enjoy myself after asking this question, which many will baulk at answering fairly and not cynically. Are we all cynics, after all?

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