Bernie… and Our Education System

Random Thoughts

I could not sleep too well the other night. And so as soon as the birds started to chirrup in the morning, I was out of bed. The radio was on as I lingered over a not-too-sweet cup of hot Bois Cheri tea with a dash of lemon. Everywhere seemed so quiet except for the excited voices on the radio discussing for the umpteenth time the “Manna-Raj” PRB, which seems to have doubled public sector pay without any justification.

Please don’t get me wrong. As is abundantly clear from my previous writings, I am all for better pay for everyone particularly those at the lower end of the ladder, PROVIDED (and it is a very big proviso) that there is a commitment to deliver. That poorly paid waiter who served us dinner at the luxury hotel last Christmas comes to mind. With a young, growing family to look after, he could well do with a little bit more. As a matter of fact, quite a little bit more and, going by the look of the results of the hotel sector, his employers can well afford to pay it.

However, some of us may well ask whether more money makes us more happy? I think my old boss had the answer to that one. “Money is not everything but, by golly, it helps you get a lot of (necessary) things!” he used to say

London

When I was working in London in the 1970s, I used to have a monthly tryst with Bernie, a jovial Jewish hairdresser. How this one-man-band had managed to survive among all the glittering salons that surrounded him in the City remains a source of wonder to this day.

Anyway, for a fiver, Bernie used to give me a haircut, wash and brush as well as trim my beard and, free of charge, recount a lot of funny, entertaining anecdotes from the long life of an old hairdresser. This he always finished with a massage to the nape and head. “This is your bonus for five (pounds), sir,” a play on the words from University Challenge (UC), a weekly TV quiz programme that pitted six of the best university undergraduates from across the UK.

Speaking of UC, at the very start of the competition, each student used to introduce him/herself — name, the name of their College and the subject they were studying. I nurtured a secret ambition of appearing on this programme one day and gave my name, the name of a fictitious college and finished with “reading page 3 and the racing pages of the Sun! (with its famous P3 girls).”

Smile

As I bade goodbye when he was done with me, Bernie would hand me another one of his calling cards on which he had taken the care to write the date and time of my next appointment. Yes, our Bernie worked on a purely advanced booking system. That way not only did he ensure for himself a captive customer base, but also made sure he would not turn away any business. I don’t think he made the fortunes that the salons that charged you a king’s ransom did. But he made enough, and he was happy. Above all, his customers were happy because he gave such a personal service; and with a smile.

No smile, no customer, no income, no salon — he had the brains to work this one out logically!

Pleasure Island

Now, what happens in the Paradise Island of Pleasure? How many of our (un?)civil servants can claim to be giving, or having ever given, a service à la Bernie? The day they are able to answer this in the affirmative without blinking, the taxpaying citizen will not begrudge them a cent of their whopping PRB increments.

Our education system has the big C!

The year was 1958. We were 11-going-on-12. All 40 of us; 30 boys and 10 girls — a very distinct sign of the times. We were placed in the “Classe La Bourse” under the steady care of Mrs Faustin, a lady from Port Louis. Mrs F was not only a most pleasant woman, but also one of the very best teachers I have ever had in my life.

Unsurprisingly, at the end of that year, most of us passed our Primary School Leaving Certificate (the equivalent of today’s CPE), many with 5As. Only the few dunces — of whom there will always be some — failed in spite of Mrs F’s extra coaching sessions, administered free of charge. As far as I know, none of us took any private tuition. Indeed this was unheard of at the time!

Thinking back, it strikes me that Mrs F must have covered the full curriculum in order to achieve her phenomenal results, compared with the low pass rates we get in some of our schools today. It equally strikes me that we have a problem of poor results today because many teachers probably do not cover the whole curriculum during school hours, saving some possibly vital sections for tuitions. Consequently, those who cannot afford private tuitions do badly, or fall by the wayside altogether.

The noble profession

The noble profession of Mrs F has been turned into a COMMERCIAL enterprise to milk money out of desperate parents. In the process, we are turning our children into unthinking zombies to be stuffed with chewed up information, just good enough to get them through the end of year exams.

It is said that the best years of our lives are those of our youth. And with the advancing years with their fair dose of arthritis and what-have-you, the reasons seem more obvious to me. However, when I see those tiny bodies hunched under the weight of what looks like an SMF soldier’s kitbag, I wonder how many of our children think they are actually living the best years of their lives.

When is the last time any of us heard children laughing, I mean really laughing? The last time I heard the sound of children’s laughter in my neighbourhood was four years ago. The father’s employment contract ended, and both brother and sister went back home to India with their parents.

Everybody knows there is something drastically wrong with our education system. But rather than seek the horse’s remedy, we mess about at the periphery. An aspirin may be good enough for a simple headache, but not for a cancerous attack on the body — and our education system has the big C!

Solution

When one school in the South gets 3 passes in a class of 31 (10 percent!!) whilst another in the North scores a 100 percent pass rate, there is something dramatically awry with the system. With GM spending Rs.25k on every child, the tax-paying public is entitled to expect that it gets value for money.

As a matter of priority, the Ministry of Education should carry out a thorough social study of the schools that have a consistently poor pass rates at CPE and compare the findings with those that do well.

It is only when we discover the cause of a problem that we can begin to work on a solution. Surely, it cannot be beyond human capacity to establish the reason(s) for the gaping discrepancies in the CPE results and take the necessary steps to reduce them. But then again, do we have the will?


* Published in print edition on 20 September 2013

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