Teeluck Bhuwanee: “Reforming education demands fundamental change, not mere tweaking”

Qs & As

‘The present 9-year schooling project still spends much energy on the access issue when the focus should have been on quality and equity’

Will the proposed educational reform of 9-year schooling bring about the real changes that are required to produce the skilled workforce that will match the requirements of future markets? What are the implementation issues and the challenges that are likely to be faced? We sought the views Teeluck Bhuwanee, educationist, on these questions. He holds a PhD holder in Educational Management and is a UNESCO Consultant. He recently retired as a UNESCO Head of Office, after having been the first Registrar of the UTM, Senior Lecturer at the MCA, Lecturer at the MIE and Rector in state secondary schools since 1975. Read on:

 

* In an ‘Economic Mission Statement’ he made last Saturday, the Prime Minister has laid the road map to achieving what he qualifies as a ‘Second Economic Miracle’. In the same week, Education minister Leela Devi Dookun-Luchoomun made public her proposals for the implementation of Nine-Year Schooling. It might appear that there is no direct relationship between the two, but one could nevertheless ask whether the Education minister’s proposals match the economic ambitions that the PM has set out for Mauritius in terms of an ‘economic miracle’ and beyond. What do you think?

 

The Minister of Education in her presentation states that the Primary School Achievement Certificate will be introduced from 2017 onwards. The First Cohort of pupils of Standard V will be in 2016 and Grade 7 in 2018.The Second Cohort Standard V in 2017 will be Grade 7 in 2019. The National Certificate of Education will be introduced from 2020 onwards. Honestly, I do not see how the second economic miracle will be directly influenced by the implementation of the 9-year continuous education, except after 2020, when the project will start being implemented and the first students of the new reform will enter the world of work.

But you rightly said all education proposals are meant to match the economic ambitions of a country. The Systematic Country Diagnostic of the World Bank makes clear that there is broad access to education but challenges to quality and equity remain.

The present 9-year schooling project still spends much energy on the access issue (to regional schools, academies or polytechnics) when the focus should have been on quality and equity. If all secondary schools were of a relatively equitable level, if the likes of what were called profit making secondary schools (of a poor quality because fees were lower and therefore lower quality) had been closed or drastically improved, if we had only two categories of secondary schools (the excellent ones and the good ones) the issue of access would not be an obsession.

* A lot has been said about the damage wrought by the CPE at the primary level. Its critics have over the years decried the ‘unhealthy competition’ the ranking or grading mechanisms put in place for admission purposes to ‘Star Schools’ brought about, as well as the private tuitions industry it has spawned that adds to the burden of already overstressed students. Now we’ll have two exams: one, the Primary School Achievement Certificate exam, at the level of Grade 6 (Std VI) for admission to a regional lower secondary school; the second, the National Certificate of Education, for access to the ‘Academies’ – the restyled Star Colleges. How does this improve on the earlier system?

Let me start by saying that we have inherited a system of schooling that is still colonial in the paradigm for which it was designed, punctuated by examinations and exams results and rankings for selection purposes. Many, not to say most, parents are not really worried about quality or relevance of education. They are not quite aware of what they want or where their children are heading towards in our system of education. Ensuring a seat in the best schools (primary and secondary schools that produce more CPE ranked or laureates) has been and will be the general aim of almost all parents for quite some time.

This is worsened by the mass media that give large coverage to those that “shine” at exams, when CPE or laureate results are made public, creating the perception that schools with better examination results are those that should be considered desirable. For that reason parents are willing to send their children to the best schools within their residential area and others will provide false addresses of the place of residence in order to get the children to what they consider to be the best schools. Private tuitions are perceived to be the only way for their children to get the required marks to be admitted in the good schools.

With regards to the second part of your question, the World Bank report asserts that development of post-primary levels has been particularly impressive with access to secondary education increasing from 75 percent of the population in 1996 to virtually 100 percent by 2011. Inequity issues impact learning achievements in Mauritius as children from low-income families have lower primary completion rates and performance than their well-off peers. There are substantial regional disparities in educational outcomes in Mauritius. All this has translated into a very selective system, which results in a very high between-school variance in reading performance, a result of students with similar abilities and similar socio-economic backgrounds clustering together. One possible solution could be converting the CPE into a diagnostic test instead of using it as an ‘early tracking examination’ to allow students to choose between the academic and training tracks.

So, if we were to heed the World Bank suggestion, we would not be using the Primary School Achievement Certificate (PSAC) to make students choose between the academic and training tracks. However, primary school teachers and many parents will insist to have examinations, not tests, and the division of post-basic education in 3 categories will further consolidate the very high between-school variance.

* It has been said that what is required for our education system is a real paradigm shift where the emphasis is not on the examination but on the exit profile of the student who leaves school and his/her potential employability. Can the nine-year schooling really make a difference in this respect?

When I was working at the UNESCO Regional Office for Africa, we designed a Programme called the Basic Education in Africa Programme (BEAP – A copy can be seen at the website of UNESCO IBE http://www.ibe.unesco.org) and we proposed the 9-year schooling programme for African countries and UNESCO helped many countries implement it. When the nine-year schooling was again initiated in 2013 in Mauritius, I sent a copy of the programme and my presentations to the then Minister who must have passed it on to his staff.

The main point of a nine-year or 10-year basic education implies a continuous uninterrupted education. The one presented by the Minister does propose 9 years of basic education but the interruption will take place with the PSAC disturbing the flow of education. What is now required is a real paradigm shift where the emphasis is not on any examination but on the exit profile of the student who leaves school when he is about age 15.

Although most Mauritian children attend and complete primary education they lag behind their peers in comparator countries with regard to basic literacy, maths, and science skills. Mauritians have lower reading literacy rates than the average for their OECD peers. These low learning achievements suggest that a large segment of the population lacks adequate literacy and math skills to meet today’s labour market demands, hampering their employment and income prospects.

The system should be clear about what knowledge, skills, competencies, attitudes and values will the student have on leaving school. If properly conceptualised, developed and implemented, the nine-year schooling can serve to re-conceptualise primary and lower secondary education, building upon a reformed, higher quality and more equitable and inclusive basic education at primary and early childhood education level. It will also challenge the Mauritian government to utilise, democratise and improve all existing learning opportunities, including those run by communities, civil society and private sector, whether they are school-based or work-based.

* Are these issues not being addressed by the 9-year schooling?

The Minister does make a list of the difficulties that are faced in the present system. In her proposed education structure, after Grade 9, students get boxed out, either in the Academy box, the Regional Secondary box or the Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) bloc. The system clearly categorises students after Grade 9 as very good students (so-called academics), average students who will get average academic results or academically weak students who are good only for manual jobs and technical skills. That is certainly not the best way to impart skills to our students in a system that needs more and more skilled people in a country with a Vision 2030.

Talking about skills shortage, the World Bank Report again stresses that Mauritian firms are hampered by the pool of skills available. An inadequately educated workforce is identified among the top five most problematic factors for doing business in Mauritius. The shift towards a service-oriented knowledge economy has resulted in demands for skills that the education and training system do not deliver… a skills mismatch between the quality and relevance of skills provided in the education system. This results in overall underemployment, as many jobs do not actually require many of the degrees earned.

That is why, rather than marginalise the skills sector, we could have found an excellent opportunity to rehabilitate and enhance the status of technical skills by imparting them to ALL students, not just those that are too weak to go to academies. Also we should have encouraged the Mauritian universities to develop degree and post-graduate courses in TVET. Unfortunately we are still in the old school paradigm.

The project presents a structural change of what is called improvement of the system’s structure, not a fundamental education reform. Reforming education goes even beyond improving it because reform demands fundamental change, not mere tweaking. I have a feeling that this project has been designed not by pedagogues and education experts and visionaries but by highly skilled technicians who are looking for administrative solutions to the problems of education in Mauritius.

Having said that, those who resisted past reforms but who see their vested interests will be served and seeing that their members are, in fact, losing nothing much, will support the project. The problems will remain the same and the 9-year schooling, in its present format, has not addressed them. We are going round and round in circles.

* The well-off but also those who were willing to make sacrifices of their time and leisure and to invest in tuitions are said to have leveraged the CPE-based system to their advantage, leaving some 30% stranded by the roadside. It had almost been made to appear discriminatory against the 30% caught up in a self-perpetuating system that sustains their exclusion from the mainstream. That’s good enough reason to reform the system. But will the 30% – and the remaining 70% – be any better off with the Nine-Year Schooling plan?

 

Let us remember that the Minister has only provided a blue print of the 9-year basic education. So naturally, its scope is limited to 9 years of education or schooling. It unfortunately does not present it in the context of the whole education system, ranging from pre-primary to university. It is limited to the lower aspect of the system, when we should be spending more effort on issues like the knowledge economy, the future of our workforce, R&D, etc. The education system is not responding to the economic needs and aspirations of the Mauritian employers and employees, with virtually no industrial R&D. There is no national innovation strategy supported by an education delivery that places emphasis on HOTS (Higher Order Thinking Skills). An education reform should seek a concerted effort that includes policy makers from the relevant ministries, academics, researchers, and the private sector so as to develop a strategy and clarify the roles and responsibilities of various stakeholders moving forward. Any education reform needs to better understand the technology needs of SMEs etc, as the World Bank report says.

But if we are bogged down to who will go to which school, what examinations are needed at what level to further the economic interests of those already in employment, then we are still in a narrow vision of an education reform. We are constantly wanting to create myths and wanting to blind unfortunate parents to the realities of their children’s future.

* Tell us about those myths – which ones and what for?

Listen to the woes of parents (still believing in myths conjured by the well remunerated technicians who create these myths) who have made sacrifices to send their children to university and find them either unemployed or underemployed, after years of sacrifice.

Myth number 1: CPE will disappear

The last government’s budget speech mentions « Remplacer le CPE par un examen de fin de cycle primaire moins stressant et introduire le ‘nine-year schooling’. There will still be an examination at Grade 6 as a selection process, and parents will see these exams as a way to canalize their wards to the best ‘regional’ secondary schools. The traditional ways in which teachers will approach the CPE examinations are not likely to change.

I heard some stakeholders repeat that we need an examination to gauge the progress of a student. This is an old paradigm, where examinations are seen as the only way to assess whether a student has made progress. What exams will we use to assess multiple intelligences? Or will we continue to think that only those who have excellent memory and can remember facts have ‘succeeded’? The president of a primary school teachers union jubilates that the Minister has promised that there will be exams after 6 years. So the interests of private tuition teachers at Grade 5 and 6 are safeguarded.

Continuous assessments require a great deal of rigour in a small country like Mauritius, where everybody knows everybody. The element of subjectivity and the absence of national or even regional standards in assessing Grade 5 and 6 students for selection purposes (even if limited to 40%) are bound to create a social malaise as teachers are likely to be seen as assessing their own students and their own teaching. The nine-year continuous education should provide the ‘right to education’ (including the right to complete the entire cycle) to ALL.

Myth number 2: The stigma attached to vocational education will change

It is true that the concept, the terminology, the content, the teaching methodology, the real conditions of the Pre-Voc schools were all deeply flawed right from the outset. Remember how the Junior Technical Schools in the 1970s were quickly transformed into State Secondary Schools eventually!!!

But what about lifelong and life-wide learning; inclusive education; skills and competencies as learning processes and outcomes; and the importance of ‘equitable diversity’. What about those who are differently abled? (Physical, emotional, intellectual). All these require large amounts of resources, teacher training, re-hauling the curriculum from Grade 1 onwards. Here, entrepreneurship education and its various modes of delivery (right from early childhood) to prepare young people for life and work can be conceived as an overarching approach to foster those principles throughout all levels of education systems. School Certificate and Higher School Certificates examinations will not change. Our students will continue to take tuition in the subjects taken at SC/HSC levels and the laureate system will remain rooted.

Myth number 3: The system of what is called elitism will disappear with nine-year schooling

Nothing is further from the truth. Access to the “academies” (incidentally the buzz word in UK education these days with the new Minister of Education in UK facing a lot of criticism on this) will be based on the PSAC, a selection examination that will take place after nine years of “schooling”, and those that can now afford additional tuitions will be able to have a greater chance of access to the “academies”.

* Do you believe that we will be able to implement the reform at the end of this year?

The MIE has a major role to play in providing the required training and follow up in schools. It cannot be business as usual. A very robust curriculum design and implementation unit with the participation of all departments now becomes an absolute necessity. With the nine-year education programme, curriculum (along with its assessment) will be the heart of basic education reform and that thus its review will constitute the core of its work.

There is a range of other components of basic education which may well need adaptation in order to ensure its success. These include teacher education reform, attention to learner support materials and ICT, the move towards diversified modes of provision, whole school improvement, issues of governance and management, the linkages with community and labour market, and inter-sectoral collaboration at national and local levels.

I doubt if the MIE has the resources to be both a teacher training institution as well as a Centre of Curriculum Research and Development. Such a Centre will require time to research skills needs, curriculum design and delivery, and all the MIE can do at this stage is provide a curriculum framework.

The expansion from six to nine years provides the challenge of a comprehensive curriculum reform so as to align curriculum structure, content, pedagogy and assessment to the re-defined objectives of basic education and the changing profile of learners. The emphasis would lie on 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.

The philosophy that was behind the creation of the Regional Directorates has never filtered down. The top officials never allowed them to get any real autonomy. The Directorates should have been the vectors of change and innovation, with the Regional Directors using the support of the Heads of schools and their senior management as the real agents of change. Unfortunately, training for decentralised management and regional autonomy have not been given their due importance.

Parents in a newly reorganised association (not the traditional PTA whose role is only to provide funding with hands off school) needed to be duly sensitised and their cooperation actively involved and valued. All this is a very vast field of action that requires time, energy, resources, and commitment.

 

  • Published in print edition on 28 August 2015

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