This Reform goes much further than the one imposed by the MSM-MMM alliance between 2000 and 2005. Its stark outcome, behind the facade of a meritorious combat against competition, is actually to increase competition and to restrict access to best quality public sector education
By S. Callikan
December traditionally is the time pupils and students should be able to relax, meet up and socialise with friends, catch some book, visit a museum, attend a performance or pursue a sports or leisure interest left aside amidst classes or tuition work demands and, generally, unwind after the efforts and pressures of the year. It is also a time of often long-awaited festivities, the sort of break everyone needs to get some oxygen back into the system, particularly tremulous for those exiting one stage for another, from pre-primary to primary or secondary. Those who have reached the end of their educational adventure over twelve to thirteen years and have burned the midnight oil to face their O-levels or A-levels, can heave a sigh of relief knowing there is little point agonising over results that are further down the road.
Teachers, educators and school administrators who, in their overwhelming majority, have often done their best in whatever circumstances, structures and environments they operate, can also indulge in the minor pleasures, major activities or personal development initiatives they could not find time for. And parents should be relieved, knowing that their children had been and would, in the coming year, be safely shepherded in the numerous skills and aptitudes designed for their level of development in a supportive environment. For those parents whose children are reaching an exit stage of the education system, there will have been, perhaps over several years, the careful preparations for higher studies, vocational training institutes or the world of work.
That is the picture we would expect, for we have little else as natural resources than the knowledge, talents, skills, attitudes and values that have to be transmitted to the upcoming generation, who in all probability, will be called upon to steer or contribute to a country facing more complex and changing environments and a host of challenges on the economic, digital, social and environmental fronts.
Broadening opportunities for the long-haul
We need to nurture and expand opportunities for the future high-fliers, those whose personal abilities, interests and circumstances enable them to accept the sacrifices and challenges of the longer-haul paths of higher, university or professional education, whether locally or overseas. In the immediate post-independence years, high and middle-level cadres were required by the thousands to replace those who were or had departed for foreign shores and lives. Opportunities broadened with the revolutionary policy to implement free secondary education and with more scholarships, enabling a new generation of future graduates and top-level cadres. Opportunities broadened again with the rising credibility of the University of Mauritius in several domains, despite quite low fees, later to be followed by more publicly-funded tertiary institutions, including the MIE. Additional support measures included free or subsidised transport and college examination fees. Competitive pressures for better schools and colleges grew and the private tuition industry began to flourish some twenty years ago.
But neither our political class, to their credit, nor the front-line educators and administrators have, over that period, been unaware that our education system had to tackle several issues simultaneously. To wit, at least the following: (a) continue broadening opportunities for the long-haul stream of students, our future lawyers, doctors, engineers and architects, accountants and other professionals; (b) reducing competitive pressures at too early an age for perceived “better” schools and colleges; (c) reducing exam-orientation and private tuition, and (d) providing gainful, adapted opportunities and outcomes to those who, for a variety of reasons, disconnect, resent, reject or simply fail to thrive in the traditional schooling system.
If we stick to traditional thinking and approaches, it has always been and will remain a rather testing quad to resolve and one that engaged the advisers, staff and collaborators of several Ministers of Education, from Armoogum Parsuramen’s Master Plan days to the current Nine-Year Schooling (NYS) reform of Minister Dookun-Luchmun, now in Year 2 of its implementation.
There has been lately a flurry of recent media articles and negative news coverage regarding the second year of PSAC (Primary School Achievement Certificate), which has replaced the CPE (Certificate of Primary Education) examination, and the concomitant process of admissions to colleges or more generally about the merits and problems with NYS or its implementation. It might have been a stark wake-up call for the Education establishment that, having gone beyond pretty pictures, diagrams and flowcharts, parents were now more acutely aware and unhappy with many aspects of the Reform which has been imposed on them.
For the Minister, on the political level, it might bring up distant reminiscences of former Ministers Kadress Pillay and Steven Obeegadoo, who both floundered on a socially or pedagogically unpalatable education reform proposal. In the latter’s case, his saving grace of having at least funded the construction of some thirty buildings for new colleges, failed to stem popular discontent with a poorly concocted reform that was outright rejected most notably by the Diocese of Catholic schools. The rebaptised SeDEC has here again, with the NYS, refused to convert any of its colleges, generally in high demand, into pompously termed ‘Academies’ for access to what are basically Higher Secondary Schools. Nor again, is it expected that they will send their students for the new highly competitive exam which would control access to those same elite Academies, the National Certificate of Examination (NCE).
Some quarters would have us believe that the non-participation of SeDEC in the Minister’s Reform is somehow responsible for the gaping fissures and failures of NYS. Or that it is just a matter of throwing more money and resources at college infrastructure and staffing to dispel parental perceptions of good and better institutions. Both are highly simplistic and reflect the disarray of experienced frontliners, trade-unionists, advisors and administrators faced with the impasse that NYS always promised to be.
The end of meritocracy
The harrowing consequences of NYS have been lengthily and repeatedly highlighted here and elsewhere since late 2015 but it cannot be a matter of satisfaction or comfort to simply restate some key aspects:
- a) the end of the opportunity for admissions on a merit-based national system (the National Colleges) in parallel to the Regional College admissions, and the concomitant absence of places in some 12 high-demand State Colleges remains unjustified and has only accentuated competition for seats in alternative institutions; while the Minister has often opined that there are plenty of available seats elsewhere, parents may not feel so equably disposed with such a bland disregard for their attachment to historically crucial education institutions in our sociological setting; even the reputed practitioner and trade-unionist S. Tengur who has steadfastly supported NYS could not do otherwise than claim lately that strict regionalisation and PSAC spell the end of “meritocracy”;
- b) the fact that private and confessional colleges and organisations, including SeDEC can continue to freely operate their Forms 1-VI colleges, whilst the disruption has been imposed on the best-perceived public sector State Colleges, is a singular throw-back to the reform engineered during the 2000-05 MSM-MMM alliance and may be a harbinger of similar political implications; it may be sheer coincidence but it is the second time this century that an MSM, or a Jugnauth-led government is bent on “déshabiller Pierre pour habiller Paul”, in other words, chopping off the network of National Colleges, ensuring a “nivellement par le bas” for the majority while a minority of some 1200 students will be pampered in the Ministry’s concoction for the “elite”, the Academies;
- c) the PSAC, with its resit opportunity, is promoted as a less competitive hurdle than the decried CPE; yet the opacity surrounding its operation, spread over two years, with regionalisation and the abolition of the 90% grade (A+) remains a disturbing point, particularly when it conditions access to secondary colleges;
- d) the newly introduced strictly competitive National Certificate Examination at end of Form III is in heavy waters and can only offer the prospect of a troublesome ride: probably confined to public sector children only, with a dozen or more examinable subjects, an admixture of different student abilities and entirely local paper setting and corrections;
- e) the end of the pre-vocational streams and the inanity of “extended” stream students (those who have acute numeracy and literacy difficulties), having to face college mathematics, science or humanities subjects, with an extra year granted to face the NCE, is something of a lunar contraption; one could recall the saying that “a camel is a horse designed by a committee of advisors”; and
- f) sadly but predictably, the NYS Reform embeds competitive exams at two critical junctures (PSAC & NCE) prior to O-levels instead of one (the CPE), and has already extended and entrenched private tuition to former years of rest and respite; the pretty flowcharts and pictures of kids happily jumping these imposing hurdles before even considering their O- and A-levels, are just that, “pretty pictures” which found grace with the media and several noted editorialists since 2015.
The Cocoon of Pampered Academies
For the sake of brevity we won’t add further comments regarding the fate of public regional colleges, already flogged by episodes of rowdiness and indiscipline, not to mention other disturbing behaviours, which will have to cope after their better elements are harpooned into the cocoon of pampered Academies; nor will we drag our commentary to other aspects. These have been amply mentioned here since 2015 with the humble suggestion that the Minister, in such an important matter, provides time for public consultation, comments, views and suggestions.
We can all applaud the necessity to keep children in a learning and socialisation environment for a longer time spread, for some attempt to introduce a “dose of holistic education” and for the efforts to help along those who, early on in school life, disconnect tragically with traditional teaching methods. By all reckonings, they have, for decades, constituted more than a third of the country’s student population, and although the school cannot be expected to replace parents or cure society’s ills, it must be believed that it has a more cogent role to play in addressing that worrisome story of untapped talents and skills, of disenchantment, of social inadaptation, of classroom rowdiness and indiscipline, of school drop-outs and failures. Nobody needs reminding the accumulated societal dimensions of some 4000-5000 adolescents barely equipped with numeracy or literacy skills every year. The failure of NYS proponents and conceptors in this domain is tragic.
This Reform goes much further than the one imposed by the MSM-MMM alliance between 2000 and 2005. Its stark outcome, behind the facade of a meritorious combat against competition, is actually to increase competition and to restrict access to best quality public sector education to some 1200 places for those whose parental means will allow a harrowing rat race and private tuition from Std V to Form III.
Parents who don’t have the means for the enormous investments being asked, whose children may falter under such accumulated weight, who can’t afford fee-paying private colleges, or gain access to the limited prized seats at confessional colleges (SeDEC’s), will have to accept the fate being thrust upon them. NYS even manages to do this class act without in any way providing concrete, realistic educational objectives and perspectives for extended stream students, in other words, Pierre has been “deshabillé” without even “habiller” Paul.
Now that parents and media observers are better understanding all the implications of NYS, the Minister and her cadres may well wonder whether the four years of planning and resources were worth the outcome. A concerted, consensual Education Reform can and should aim for better outcomes.
* Published in print edition on 21 December 2018