Any reform must be just and equitable and should be seen to be so
It was in 1975 that the idea of nine year schooling caught my attention in either an interview or an article in L’Express by K. Venkatasamy, whom I had known a few years back at the University of Leeds.
He was the President of the Federation of Civil Service Unions, and decried the rat race for the Junior Scholarship and automatic promotion. He advocated 9-year schooling and a Form III examination.
In the same year and in the same newspaper, there was an article by Surendra Bissondoyal arguing for a reorganisation of secondary education, equally advocating 9-year schooling and castigating the Junior Scholarship as the ill of the educational system. He had just returned from Leeds University after completing a Diploma in Education, and reorganisation of the educational system along the line of 9-year schooling had probably been the object of his dissertation. Both Venkatasamy and Bissoondoyal at that time thought that free secondary education was not a realistic proposal for a developing country like Mauritius. Since then things have changed; only one year later the Private Secondary School Act was proclaimed and a year later free secondary education for all became a reality.
Nine-year schooling: US and UK
In fact nine-year schooling, and its provision in middle schools was well established in the United States, and made its appearance in England in the 1960s in the West Riding, Yorkshire owing to the initiative of a Chief Inspector of Schools. However, it was the progressive Secretary of State for Education, Sir Edward Boyle who facilitated the setting up of middle schools with the Education Act of 1964 and later he resigned from politics to become the Vice-Chancellor of University of Leeds in the 1970s. In 1963 he had asked the Central Advisory Council for Education to study primary education in all its aspects and the transition to secondary education.
It was the Plowden Report of 1967, produced in the liberal atmosphere of the times when Piaget’s theory was at the peak of its influence, that recommended the setting up of middle schools. It also recommended the abolition of the 11+ examination, streaming on the basis of ability and the need to free primary schools from the pressure to get good results. In the 1980s, as a result of these recommendations, a number of middle schools were set up, reaching over 1000 before declining to a little less than 200 at present, and may eventually disappear from the educational scene in UK.
UNESCO Report in Mauritius
In the middle of 70s, the UNESCO Report ‘Educational Development, Institute of Education, Mauritius’ fully subscribed to nine-year schooling and even underlined that we were producing too many School Certificate and Higher School Certificate holders. The view was that pupils should be channelled after nine years of schooling and a Form III examination to the world of work, in other terms in the factories. Fortunately this class approach to educational reform was not implemented: had we done so, we would have headed for disaster. The Report might have been realistic in its prognosis, but it overlooked the educational aspirations of the population which have their roots in the history of slavery and indenture, and the resourcefulness of Mauritians to invent a new future. The Report suggested that:
‘the Educational structure might be conceived as comprising a 9-year basic education in a two-tier system with a transition from primary to junior secondary level after the first six years.
‘The basic education should be conceived as firmly related to the environment and community of Mauritius — not as a preparation for School Certificate, Higher School certificate and university level work. The present notion of secondary education consisting of a five-year course leading to School Certificate is regarded not as serving the best interests of Mauritius in the present socio-economic situation. The important change is to devise Mauritian-oriented curricula for the 9 years of general education based on agreed attitudes, skills and knowledge and aimed at preparing Mauritian children for a useful, satisfying life in their own country in the broadest sense of the term… It is regarded as educationally undesirable for these 9 years of education to be conceived as merely a preparation for those who are going on to further education.’
Evolution of concept of nine-year schooling locally
In Mauritius the idea of nine year schooling began to gain ground in the 1990s and the ‘Master Plan In Education’ with subtitle ‘A Blue Print for The Nine Year Schooling System’ was published in November 1992 by a task force presided Miss D. Venkatasamy, Deputy Director of MIE as Project Coordinator. Its main objective was to promote equity and access as there were 7000-8000 children who left school annually at the age of 12 or 13 for whom there was no provision for continuing their education. It was a detailed report which tackled the various issues concerning the implementation of 9-year schooling such as cost, refining the CPE Examination, improving the school curriculum, teacher training, creation of pre-vocational stream and a Form III assessment. In the framework, some pupils would proceed, after 9 years of schooling, to either vocational centres or to Forms IV, V or VI or to enter the job market.
Subsequently a committee was set up by the National Education Council, presided by Suren Bissoondoyal, Director of MES, to review the secondary school system in the light of the recommendation for nine-year schooling for all children up to the age of 15, to provide access and promote equity and excellence. It submitted its report in 1995. The report discussed all the major issues regarding the implementation of nine-year schooling, and examined two alternatives.
The first alternative recommended regionalisation up to Form III in 11 zones, the CPE examination to be used as a achievement and not a selective examination, a 9-year basic curriculum and the conversion of star schools both in the State and private sectors into Forms IV-VI schools. In the second alternative, the CPE was retained but ranking was abolished and replaced by a grading system which ranged from below 30 to 90+. It was expected with reduced pressure for private tuition pupils would have more more time for non-academic subjects and extra-curricular activities. The star schools in both State and private sectors would be transformed into Form VI colleges. With regionalisation, children would not have to travel long distances to attend secondary schools.
Finally, after considering the two alternatives, the Committee recommended nine years of schooling for everybody with a differentiated curriculum thereafter, with pupils either going to vocational centres, secondary schools up to Form V or Form VI. Admission to secondary schools would be done on a regional basis, with 6 zones, with RCEA schools having the choice of recruiting 50% outside the region, that is on a national basis. The CPE exam would retain the grading system ranging from below 30 to 90+ in five subjects with different ratios.
Realising the major challenges ahead, the Committee wanted the construction of a number of schools on a regional basis and acknowledged that it would not be an easy task to ensure that all schools have the same standard in terms of physical and human resources, given that the perception of parents for particular schools might be erroneous. But on the other hand, the Committee conceded that‘it is not desirable to restrict too much the choice given to parents to select an appropriate school for their children in accordance with latter’s performance’.
Implementation of Action Plan – and reactions/perceptions
It was with these recommendations in mind that the Action Plan of Kadress Pillay proposed the construction of a number of middle schools and which was unfortunately foiled by his own colleagues. It was Minister Obeegadoo who implemented the construction of the colleges, abolished ranking, set up Form VI Colleges and implemented regionalisation. While it is generally acknowledged that the Form VI colleges was a mistake and regional colleges merely transferred competition from State star colleges to emerging regional colleges, what is not acknowledged is that it was the transformation of State star colleges into Form VI institutions while the star confessional colleges were left untouched which invited the charge of discrimination against State colleges.
Whether the indictment was justified or not or simply the result following the failure to get the confessional schools to join the reform, the perception of discrimination and injustice became deeply ingrained in an important section of the population. It was this perception which propelled the government to restore the State star colleges, and consequently the CPE as a selective examination.
Nine-year schooling is once again on the agenda and the basic outline of reform is not unlike the schemes proposed in the 1990s. For many, nine-year schooling per se is irrelevant given that all pupils have already 11 to 14 years of schooling. What still remains the priority is the abolition of the CPE as a selective examination, the broadening of basic general education for all, reducing the inefficiency of the system by improving literacy and numeracy for all and preparing all our children to lead useful and meaningful lives.
These are formidable challenges for any government and it is wise to proceed with caution. It is important that all stakeholders be taken on board and, most importantly, any reform must be just and equitable and should be seen to be so.
We are living in a world where equality, justice and equity are increasingly becoming embedded in our value system, and whereintelligence is no longer viewed as a single entity and that there exists a multitude of intelligences. All these have implications for reforming education and framing policies. As Government unfolds its reform programme, Education will inevitably arouse strong passions as has been the case in any society and will inevitably give rise to many discourses. But we should also be careful. As Michel Foucault reminds us, such discourses are not idealist constructions but are “materially produced by specific social, political and economic arrangements”.
* Published in print edition on 19 June 2015