The Winds of Change never stop blowing

Education Policies in Mauritius

By Paramanund Soobarah

Times change – as the old and even not so old often observe. The day I joined RCC, way back in the forties, all of us in Form I, and other new entrants to the school like us, were summoned to the Hall to be told about what was expected of us at our new school. Mr TB Barnes, the rector, happened to be away on home leave (he was an expatriate, as were all rectors in those days, and as were also some of the teachers, like Mr PJ Barnwell, for instance, a great favourite of mine, who later turned historian).

We were addressed by Mr André Glover, ag. Rector. He spoke in English, and we had no difficulty whatsoever in understanding him. On the other hand, we could hardly understand a word of what a couple English ushers (Messrs Steele and Hawkins), who were trying to keep us from fidgeting, were saying. We had a similar experience later when Mr Barnes himself, after he returned from leave and was on a visit to our class, read out a short extract from Dickens’s Chrismas Carol (from the grammar book by Rhatz). We couldn’t understand a word of what he read out. “Sa bane anglais-là  manze zotte mots”, somebody said (“these English people eat their words”), and we all felt less guilty.

While listening to Mr Glover on that first day, we could not avoid looking at and being overawed by the impressive boards with lists of Laureates that adorned the walls of the huge hall. In those days laureates only came from the RCC – by law; there was no competition from other schools. Was this what Chitra Awootar, the current RCC Rector, was speaking about the other day while exhorting her pupils about the need to work hard, very hard, to meet the tough competition from other schools?

On that first day, we, the First Formers, toddlers as it were, were surprised to be joined in the audience by a number of very big, serious-looking boys, some in full suits and ties: they were, we learnt, from the Royal College School, Port Louis, where they had already completed their School Certificate, and had come to do their Form VI at the Royal College, Curepipe, because there was no Form VI at the Royal College School. They were new entrants to RCC, and therefore needed to be informed about their new school just like us toddlers. I just happen to remember that one of these big boys was called Murday: he later became a great mathematics teacher and also the Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Education.

Another point to note from those days is that the laureateship was awarded on the basis, not of the Cambridge HSC, but of a special examination called the English Scholarship examination: this allowed a couple of students from the colony of Mauritius to gain access to British universities. Other colonies, Trinidad for instance, had comparable arrangements; the famous writer VS Naipaul was a laureate from Trinidad in this sense. The year of transition from the English Scholarship to the Cambridge HSC was marked by the award of four laureateships at the RCC, two for the last two students of the English Scholarship, and two from the new HSC-based system.

Around the time another change took place: the Royal College School was renamed the Royal College, Port Louis (RCPL), and got its own Form VI. Then onwards RCC had to compete with RCPL for Laureates. But the pupils still had to come to the Royal College, Curepipe, to sit for their Cambridge exams. It was around this time that Mr D Burrenchobay (later Sir Dayendranath Burrenchobay, Governor-General of Mauritius) came into the picture as physics and mathematics teacher; after a short spell at RCC, he was posted at RCPL. He kicked up a row about his pupils having to go to the RCC to sit for their exams, when the two Royal Colleges were equal in status by law. He got his way, and became very popular. Of course, he was also a great teacher, and very proficient in physics and mathematics. He did not teach English as such, but he did speak English very fluently and impeccably.

I had the benefit of taking private tuition from Mr Burrenchobay for two years in Form VI: in addition to great physics and mathematics that he taught (I still like showing off my proficiency in curve-tracing that I acquired from him), I learnt more English from him than from any my English teachers at RCC; other teachers from whom I learnt English in the same manner were R d’Unienville, who taught Maths, and B Bathfield, who taught mainly Chemistry. Mr Perdrau, also a Chemistry teacher, was in the same league. It was exhilarating to listen to them explaining their subjects in English.  (I have not included Mr Louis Besson, perhaps the greatest teacher of Engish in those days, because his subject was the English language.)

With hindsight, I realise it has been a great honour, and a great benefit, for me to have been their pupils. The lesson for our policy-makers must be that every teacher, excepting perhaps teachers of other languages, must at the same time be a teacher of English, the medium of education in the country and the language par excellence of today’s global village. It is not enough for a teacher to transmit knowledge and understanding of their subjects; their pupils must also be able to communicate that knowledge in good English orally and in writing.

Another change that came during my time was award of laureateships to non-government, i.e. private secondary schools, one on each of the classical and science sides. The very first laureate of private schools on the science side had to put up a fight to be granted his scholarship – Hon Jules Koenig had to intercede on his behalf; the story is brilliantly told in the book the “The Diary of Sheila” that I reviewed recently.  Some private school laureates’ results were as good as those of the Royal Colleges – the case of laureate Sanjay Jawaheer (later Doctor) from New Eton College comes to mind. He scored “distinctions” in all his subjects at Principal Level, just like the royals.

La Crème de la Crème

For some time we had a lady teacher –  bear in mind that the RCC was a boys-only school. After a few months she disappeared, and we learnt that she had been transferred to the new Girls’ Secondary School, which in 1953 became the Queen Elizabeth College (QEC). In those days we had our own train from Port Louis to Curepipe Road through all the intermediate stations in the morning and back everyday in the afternoon: it provided a great opportunity for RCC pupils to exchange ideas, books, problems and other matters of common interest. On opening of that girls’ school, the talk on the school train was of nothing but “cateaux verts” for weeks. QEC has remained an ace school ever since.

In the latest Cambridge exams, as is well known, it drew no less than ten laureates. All the 130 candidates it sent to the SC exams passed. What is perhaps a little less talked about is that all but one scored aggregates of 20 or less, and all but two scored aggregates of 15 or less; a whopping 62, just three short of 50%, scored aggregates of 6, the top score attainable in the exam and the dream of every school-going child: what a superb performance for the diamond jubilee!

Memories less pleasant

During my early years there the RCC was divided into black and white on practically apartheid lines. The central quadrangle was reserved for white boys who played basketball. The main football field – there used to a standard-size football ground in those days, the space now being occupied by buildings – was for the non-whites. But football matches were often organised between all-white and all-nonwhite teams; needless to say, the non-whites always won. Even inside classrooms the whites, whose numbers kept dwindling over the years, sat huddled together, seldom speaking to the other boys.

There were very few Indo-Mauritian laureates in the English Scholarship era; one recalls Mr Chavrimootoo, the first laureate way back towards the end of the nineteenth century, Mr Neerunjun in 1925 and Mr Fakim in 1935. When the HSC era started we had Mr Cassimally and Mr Heerallal. There was uproar about the latter at school, for one of his main subjects was Geography, not Physics. The rector, Dr Constant, was unmoved: he was himself a Geography specialist!

There were no Indo-Mauritian teachers. We gradually came to know why. When I reached Form II, a new teacher arrived from the Royal College School to teach Science. He was an excellent teacher, having been a laureate in the thirties. He used to tell many interesting stories. One of them, sadly, concerned his part in a protest movement against an Indo-Mauritian teacher who had been posted at the School. Because of the protests organised against him, the teacher had to be transferred back to the Primary School Division. The reason for the movement against him was clearly his ethnicity.  Some time later, during my own time at the RCC, a protest movement was  organised against another Indo-Mauritian teacher who had recently been appointed there; he was also moved out because, it was said, he could not enforce discipline in his class.

Nor did other Indo-Mauritians who came as teachers stay long. There were no further overt protests; but these teachers kept disappearing for one reason or another. Some were shunted out to the Royal College Port Louis. This happened to Bhoop Kishto, an outstandingly brilliant student and an excellent physics and maths teacher as well, and also the son of Pandit Kishto, the pioneer political activist of the thirties; Bhoop’s sister Mokshda was later laureate and became Headmistress of QEC.  The same thing happened even in the case of Mr D Burrenchobay, who after a short spell at RCC was transferred to RCPL — though I am not sure that he would have agreed that there was any ethnic influence in his transfer.

Those days are fortunately gone forever. The lists of laureates and names of the Rectors and other staff members say it all. But all children ought to know a little of what we went through to get where we are.

Some sweet and sour changes

Looking back over the last few decades, one of my sorrows about changes in education has been the suspension of the teaching of formal Euclidean Geometry. Children today do not seem to have the notion of proof arrived at by rigid logical deductive reasoning which Euclidean Geometry used to provide. There was some talk of teaching thinking skills, but I am not aware of a formal paper on the subject at the exams. Inductive reasoning also seems to have suffered the same fate, even though the principal scientific subjects are still taught.

What I can gather from young relatives is that sciences are taught more like religion – as a set of statements dictated by the teacher that have to be accepted unquestioningly. I may have been wrongly informed, but it would seem that in Chemistry, for instance, children are not told about Dalton and his atomic theory, what led to its development and adoption in the face of other competing theories, Lavoisier and the establishment of the laws of constant and multiple proportions, leading on to equivalent weights, valencies and atomic weights, and the development of the periodic table well before the structure of the atom had been established.

Chemistry, as studied in the olden days, provided a system where a number of seemingly disparate facts were joined together by positing a number of hypotheses, obtaining predictions from them and then verifying which hypothesis yielded the correct answers. In the process, some hypothesis which initially may seem correct may have to be abandoned later when its predictions no longer fit the findings. That was the real spirit of science, not the individual facts that one can encounter.  What is perhaps more likely is that, to most, I am just an old-fashioned fellow moaning about the good old times now gone for ever with the wind.

Some Substantial and Highly Significant Changes

Other major changes have come since. The biggest of all has been the extension of free secondary education to all who qualify for it, followed more recently by free transport for all pupils. The nation is deeply indebted to SSR, the father of the nation and to his son Navin for these improvements. An effort by the MMM government of 2000 to do away with our élite schools as they are called was fortunately defeated by parent-pressure through the ballot-box. But one good thing that resulted from that effort was that ranking was replaced by grading. Another was the large number of government secondary schools that were built around the country.

Not everything is rosy in our Education System. My principal grievance is that not enough is done about teaching the English language. I shall have more to say about that and some other matters some other time.

* Published in print edition on 8 March 2013

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