The New Challenge for Primary Education

By Sada Reddi

It is an established fact that whenever the middle class turns its back on public schooling or public hospitals, the services in these institutions deteriorate for all and it is those at the lower rungs of the ladder who will bear the brunt

Intense debates in many family circles about their kids’ admission to both government and aided primary schools raise a number of questions about primary education in the public sector. A few years back the concern of the majority of Mauritian parents would have been to secure a place in a star primary school. In case of failure to do so, they would have had to content themselves with a school allotted to them. The few who could afford to pay tuition fees would have opted for a private school. At present an ever-increasing number of parents want to opt out of (free) public primary education only if they can afford private education. Today the number is such that most of the places in private schools are fully booked and parents are now reserving places for their kids even before they are born.

While this phenomenon of private primary education is not new in Mauritius, the upsurge in demand for private education is explained by a general dissatisfaction with free primary education. Years back the major reason for many to opt out of free primary education was the pressure caused by the Certificate of Primary Education (CPE) examination on both pupils and parents, the stigma attached to the ranking of pupils and the need to provide private tuition to one’s ward — not so much because of its intrinsic benefits but very often to protect children from any possible trauma. If a pupil did not take private tuition, like other children in his class, he would have the feeling that he was being let down by his parents and would feel embarrassed towards both his friends and his teacher. However there were relatively few criticisms about the nature of the curriculum or even the teaching and the learning process.

Today the criticisms directed against primary education concern the curriculum itself and the nature of primary education. An increasing number of parents, who have themselves gone through the system in the past, resent this type of education for their children. The current changes in the curriculum are dismissed as too cosmetic; the pressure from assessment, examination, and private tuition is considered to have grown worse than it was earlier. Memorization, drilling and private tuition dominate the curriculum. Competition for regional colleges is as rife as before. Some of these consequences are inevitable as long as there are not sufficient state colleges at the regional level, and the existing colleges do not have the same level of infrastructure or because they develop differently as a result of the socio-economic background of their intake. Even when it is pointed out by the authorities that the curriculum is now supposed to be ‘holistic’, the question is whether there is even one primary school that has been able to put on a basic drama or music show.

It is to avoid the imposition of such a dreary curriculum on their children that many parents who can afford the fees are turning to private schooling. In their eyes the present curriculum in the public sector stultifies creativity and the potential of their children. Yet there is a lurking doubt as to whether the new private schools are indeed fulfilling the expectations of parents and the needs of their children. Private schools have better infrastructure and more resources; classes are small, not exceeding 15-to 20 pupils. Teachers may craft the best curriculum or follow international curricula that had been successfully tried in other countries. Unlike public schools where lip service is paid to a broad curriculum, private schooling is expected not only to provide literacy and numeracy skills but also to lay a foundation in other areas such as science, humanities, physical, emotional and moral development. While the importance of core subjects is not to be undermined, a broad curriculum helps to develop knowledge, skills and values from all subjects, for learning in one area helps learning in other areas.

The private education sector is quite diversified. Some of the schools are branches of international school systems catering mostly though not exclusively for the children of expatriates while others can be considered excellent traditional schools engaged in basic teaching and learning but without any particular focus on music, art, drama and sports. The middling ones have devised their own curricula and borrow heavily from other countries. Parents who opt for schools in the lower range, which charge moderate fees, do so for a number of reasons: the socio-economic background of parents and the confidence that they can supplement school activities with music, language and art lessons and a number of other outdoor activities. In these schools there exists a great potential to provide a very broad liberal education. But it does not appear that all of them operate on the basis of a formal curriculum framework; it would seem quite a few of them do not. Little is known about the training of teachers and whether they have the resourcefulness to engage pupils in a creative learning process. Even if they plan to do so, this has not been communicated to parents yet.

While many of the schools have their respective educational systems that will take their pupils right from pre-primary to higher education, a few of the private schools attended mostly by Mauritian students have the intention to integrate the PSAC in their own curriculum. This can be easily done in the setting of private schools but it should not come to dominate or distort the broad curricula of these schools. Many pupils expect to join the public education sector if they get access to a college of their choice or they would wait for the form III examination to get into the National Colleges or academies at a later stage. Whatever be their ultimate choice, tests, assessments and end-of-year examinations – though very important – should not become the central part of the curriculum for that would revive the pressure that they had sought to avoid when they opted for fee paying education.

While the trend towards private schooling is inevitable, it is to be deeply regretted that many parents, particularly those from the middle class, are increasingly staying away from our public primary schools. This will have a negative impact on free primary schooling and there is a high risk that the level of public schools will fall further in the esteem of the population if this has not already happened. We’ll end up eventually with all our public schools becoming low-achieving schools.

We were among the few countries in the world where both primary and secondary schools were always in high demand and were held in high esteem by the population. Whatever their glaring weaknesses and class bias, they have over the last decades helped social mobility and equipped the country to meet most of its challenges. It is an established fact that whenever the middle class turns its back on public schooling or public hospitals, the services in these institutions deteriorate for all and it is those at the lower rungs of the ladder who will bear the brunt.

To arrest this disturbing trend and reverse this flight from public schools, we have to stop paying lip-service to a broad school curriculum. The lack of adequate public secondary schools has been the most important single factor distorting primary education. With changing school demography and the fact that many school buildings are underutilized or on the point of closing down, there is an opportunity to reconfigure primary education in our public schools.

* Published in print edition on 5 April 2019

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