NYCBE: A satisfactory architecture for our education system?

2020 Education

The question remains whether the architecture can be tweaked or revamped for better outcomes

By S. Callikan

The rise of Mrs Leela Devi-Dookhun to being an undisputed star of the MSM galaxy should not be a surprise. As a knowledgeable practitioner with strong views on educational efforts towards academic achievements, her ministerial steps were unerring into the always difficult and sometimes tricky role of being at the helm of all education and training matters, a post she held in the previous government. There were the usual hiccups at each and every year, some sectors were indeed overlooked under her vast purview, but nothing detracted her from planning and pushing through a primary-secondary reform, known as the Nine Year Continuous Basic Education (NYCBE). The staged implementation, helped no end by Ministry staffers, Mauritius Institute of Education (MIE) and associated bodies, has been accompanied by a host of measures towards more holistic activities and environment.

Her ministerial poise and subject mastery in the National Assembly, a cut above many chest-thumpers and table-drummers, was not the only factor in her deserved political rise. The NYCBE was not going to be all cake but she skillfully used the primary education corporate bodies to override numerous apprehensions and reservations of the secondary school educators, rectors and other front-liners. On the basis of an MIE report substantiating the NYCBE and a self-imposed implementation calendar, she could disregard suggestions for opening up the proposals to public scrutiny and constructive suggestions or alternatives.

Even more impressive was the Minister’s in-step acquiescence and integration of a host of ancillary disturbances thrown onto her path from, many apparently from the ubiquitous “lord depi lao”. Be that as it may, her re-election in the Moka constituency where the PM also stood, was duly rewarded with a rise to vice-ministerial responsibilities and what must have been a very gratifying spell as stand-in PM, the first lady to do so in Mauritian politics.

On the Minister’s side, throughout her first tenure, there was the remarkable achievement to have won over the exultation of mainstream media, with editorials gushing lavish praise about the new national education architecture in the offing. Had they understood that private and confessional schools would demur from the Ministry’s reforms and continue with their established secondary practices and star schools, while any disruptions, however aggravating, would be circumscribed to the public sector? Although some have lately been discovering implications and consequences of NYCBE that should have been apparent from the start, their awakening is a belated recognition that, granted the undoubted pluses of a less stressful Primary School Achievement Certificate (PSAC) and more holistic activities, all is not well in our education system even under the new era of an old vision, hummed and hawed about for more than 30 years now.

We have praised the Minister’s steadfastness here, boldly wading where others quailed, even if we firmly believe that the NYCBE reform is an ill-fitting contraption that has not laid the platform for what is needed to correct the predicaments of today and better fulfill the country’s aspirations for our tomorrows. There is no need to go over at some length on the consequences we drew attention to over the years, but the following key points have been raised by different observers and practitioners:

* fierce competition at the early CPE-age has been abated by a PSAC spread over two years but the competitive pressures for perceived “good” college seats at Grade 7 at national level have simply been transferred to competitive pressures at regional levels;

* automatic promotion and roll-over throughout the primary schooling years is leading to a loss of interest and efforts by children and educators, causing a verifiable general lowering of standards, probably quite against the Minister’s own expressed beliefs;

* support teachers in primary for children with learning difficulties and the continuation or expansion of ZEP schools may have contributed to localized improvements but do not seem to have made a dent in overall success or failure rates at basic literacy and numeracy after six years of primary schooling;

* some 30% of the student cohorts are still in basic illiteracy and innumeracy mode with current PSAC and NYCBE; they have ended up in the separate classes for “extended stream” students (Grades 7 to 9) in many schools, where their negative experience of student life will now be extended by one year in a new environment, over a host of new subjects and areas covered by the nine-year program of Basic Education;

* a new exam at Grade 9 has been set up in NYCBE, both as an end of studies and a ferociously competitive hurdle for access to the Ministry’s prized but as yet undefined “Academies”, designed to replace the former National Colleges of merit;

* good quality public sector education will consequently be governed by limited Academy seats (for Grades 10 to 13) and no amount of spin will disguise the implicit demoralization of students and teachers who will have to continue dealing with the majority of psychological “left-overs” in their regional establishments; simultaneously, those who fared well at the Nat Gr9 exams will face another change in environment and friends prior to their School Certificate exams, which will themselves be another intense hurdle to gain enough credits for Higher SC studies;

* there is no possible dispute that the NYCBE is an exam-intensive, elitist orientation for all children and parents, designed to favour those with innate abilities within supportive or privileged family surrounds, those families with means to afford the private tuition industry and those children with the mental structures to thrive or at least emerge unscathed from an education pathway aiming for 1200-1500 Academy places out of 12,000 first year cohorts;

* that both the National Form III exams and the fabled Academies have been politely but firmly dismissed by the private and confessional streams, has not given Education Authorities, as a throw-back to Obeegadoo years, cause to pause; the Reform will be imposed on public sector only;

* competitive pressures and private tuition industry are now rampant at all stages of public sector education: grades 5 and 6 (PSAC) for regional colleges, a new intense competition at Grade 9 (National Form III exam) for Academy access, greater pressures for enough credits at SC to gain access for HSC studies and the usual pressures at HSC for good enough results for tertiary studies;

It may be too damning to believe that Education establishment, from the Ministry to the MIE and the Private Secondary Schools Authority (PSSA), are entirely oblivious of the considerable educational and social impact and the deficiencies of the NYCBE project. It may be too damning to believe that they are focused on the outcomes for the privileged few, that indiscipline, rowdiness and dismal demoralisation will be the fate of the majority lot, that PSAC failures and extended streamers have neither meaning nor substance, that garages are being gustily revamped into mini-schools by private tuition professionals in every town and village, capturing whole new swathes of parents from grades 5 to 13. It may even be that many parents may not care much what happens in school compounds or in after-hour garages, so long as their progeny are not roaming the streets. But surely neither observers nor practitioners nor the Education establishment can believe we have built with NYCBE a satisfactory architecture for our education system.

We will be bold enough to believe that even the Minister may not be entirely happy with the outcomes, the implementation and the status of NYCBE, as the first National Form III examination comes up in 2020. Even if she did, there obviously can be no rolling back politically, but the question remains whether the architecture can be tweaked or revamped for better outcomes.

For that to happen, outside views might be helpful as to the necessary redesign of unacceptable aspects while keeping on board the best of NYCBE and holistic education. Her new political status undoubtedly would give her the additional clout for any revision that would be of greater and deeper benefit to our society.

* Published in print edition on 17 January 2020

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