The Opposition: ‘Since times are changing, who knows, the tides may change’

Interview: Dharam Gokhool – Former Education Minister

we have to brace ourselves for some difficult days ahead”
‘The longer the pandemic stays around, the greater the risk of a delayed recovery’

Dharam Gokhool, former Minister of Education in a Labour-led government feels that the government has missed an opportunity to benefit by the collective intelligence and experience of educational stakeholders in the country who were willing to collaborate so as to deal with the problems linked to the pandemic as “one people, one nation”. Nevertheless, he makes some suggestions after reviewing some of the gaps he identifies in the response to the emergency by the Minister of Education. He also comments briefly on the economic situation.

Mauritius Times: As a former Minister of Education, what is your take on Government’s overall handling of the Education Sector in this Covid-19 pandemic situation?

Dharam Gokhool: There is some parallel to be drawn between the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic by the central government and the Ministry of Education. When the first three cases of Covid-19 were detected, in March 2020,and in view of the invisible, unpredictable and potentially lethal nature of the virus, there was a strong patriotic momentum that the Republic should rise up to the situation, mobilise its collective intelligence and experience and deal with the virus as one people, one nation.

The MSM-led alliance government decided that there was no need for a concerted, united response and as we know, there were a number of instances where the situation could have got out of control, namely the mishandling of opening of supermarkets, on-line shopping, the chaotic distribution of potatoes and cooking gas, etc. Unnecessary tensions and inconveniences added to the fear and anxieties of the population. All this could have been better managed if Government had adopted a more open and less blinkered approach.

As regards the situation prevailing in the Education sector, as from 18th March when it was decided to close down the educational establishments, the way forward remained fuzzy, with people wondering ‘What next?’. To calm down the concerns of parents and learners, the Ministry started the broadcast of video lessons for Primary Schools through MBC-TV and on-line teaching for secondary and higher education. Numerous problems were encountered with regard to the quality of the educational programmes and their delivery, especially for the Primary stream. Obviously there was a time constraint but if the Ministry had roped in dedicated professionals – many had already publicly announced their willingness for collaboration — the situation could have been handled in a much better manner.

As in the case of the Government’s handling of the virus, there was also absence of openness and a collaborative ethos on the part of the Ministry in dealing with the initial stages of the shutdown of educational establishments.

* In the UK, former Tory education secretary said recently that the government still did not know how it was going to get pupils back into class safely. Over here, the Minister of Education has unveiled her plans to get learners back to class. What is your assessment of her plans?

On 6th June the Minister unveiled her plans to get learners back to class. There is a new school calendar and a new scheme for assessments and examinations. There is also a very elaborate sanitary and social distancing protocol.

Now that the details are known to the stakeholders, we note that there is quasi-consensus among them that the plans have been elaborated without taking them on board and without paying due attention to the specificities of each of the subsectors. The Minister seems to have been oblivious to the fact that the Education sector is not a monolithic bloc and that it cannot be subjected to a one-size-fits-all formula.

UNESCO has recommended that careful and detailed planning is essential for reopening of schools, and Ministries must factor in three key elements: infrastructure, human resources and finance. I am not convinced that all these aspects have been taken on board in elaborating the plans. They are all very pertinent issues in the implementation phase.

The reopening plans must necessarily be formulated on the basis of extensive consultations in order to build a strong sense of ownership among the stakeholders and also to size up all organisational and practical aspects – within and outside educational establishments – to which learners will be exposed.

For example, what will be the fate of children of Grades 1, 2 and 3 who will come to school on two days for morning sessions as from 14th September until 18th December 2020, when most parents are at work? Who will take care of them during the two afternoons and the three full days when they will have to be at home?

During the Teaching Break between 15th June to 14th July and during the period when Educators will have to be in their respective educational establishments as from 15th July to resumption of classes, what will happen to the broadcast of lessons on MBC-TV for the Primary sector and on-line learning for the Secondary sector?

The plans make no mention of how the MITD centres under the Ministry will conduct their activities.

Like me, many people will wonder whether, in elaborating her plans, the Minister has complied with the precept so well known to Ministers of Education: Bien préparer pour bien gérer, bien gérer pour mieux éduquer.

* Parents are worried about the coronavirus’ toll on children’s learning, and the risks kids might face once schools reopen given the difficulties of implementing social distancing in and outside the classroom in most of our schools (except for those with low school population) and even in school buses. To be fair, there is not much the authorities can do about that. What do you think?

As a former Minister, as an Educator and as a parent, I am very disturbed that, in formulating her plans, the Minister who speaks very eloquently about “l’épanouissement de chaque enfant”, has not taken into consideration the tremendous emotional and psychological pressures that almost all learners will have been through with the confinement/lockdown being extended to July 2020.

The arrangements under which the Minister is proposing to reopen schools are likely to cause more distress to learners as the conditions of social distancing to which they will be subjected and under which they will restart their learning, will sound like a prolongation of the confinement/lockdown.

The plans of the Minister should have incorporated a reasonable period of time, during which teams of psychologists and social workers together with educators and school administrators would have interacted with learners to prepare them emotionally and psychologically to renew with their normal learning activities. This would have helped to alleviate the pressures on learners.

Opportunities should also have been given to parents with specific issues concerning their children during the confinement/lockdown to share their experiences or seek counselling as appropriate.

These are but a few suggestions to alleviate the worries of parents and also to make the social-distancing less cumbersome. Constraints should not be an excuse to confine oneself in a comfort zone and be content with the strict minimum; it is an opportunity to show creativity and leadership

* We read from the New York Times that researchers are saying that students could lose between “half and all of the achievement growth one would expect in a normal academic year”. Do you think students will definitely fall behind because of the closings, or is it possible for them to eventually catch up?

We have a system of education where face-to-face Educator-Learner interaction is the norm and technology-mediated learning is yet to become pervasive and an integral part of our educational ecosystem. During the months of confinement/lockdown, most learners were deprived of their privileged medium of learning.

Also transforming teaching materials into digital format at short notice and not having the required digital and ICT skills may adversely impact on the quality of teaching and learning. These are issues that cannot be addressed by ad hoc quick fix solutions like running a couple of days of workshops.

Another aspect which limits the learning process is the absence of peer learning, and most learners were deprived of this opportunity.

In many cases, many learners did not have access to technology or a supportive home environment.

Now, in the plans elaborated by the Minister, there is a marathon term of some 20 weeks (1st August to 18th December).Is such a long stretch of time conducive to effective learning?

It may be a useful exercise for the Ministry to assess the situation in our local context, but the researchers cited by the New York Times, to my mind may not be too off the mark in their affirmations.

* Given the digital divide here as elsewhere, new arrangements put in place to ensure online schooling during the lockdown could widen equality gaps. Are you worried about the issue of educational equity?

Ministers of Education, worldwide, are champions and promoters of three fundamental principles that should guide education policies, processes and practices. They are Access, Quality, Equity and Inclusion.

Equity and Inclusion in Education is a basic human right.

When I scrutinise how the Ministry is handling the issue of equity and inclusion, I cannot refrain myself from concluding that the reality is very far from the rhetoric that we of often hear from the Minister on this issue

Let me give you two concrete examples.

  1. On 14th January this year, at Bois des Amourettes ZEP School, a Hot Meals project for children of that school was launched. Since the confinement/lockdown, over five months have elapsed. Were they provided with the meals or were they deprived?
  2. The on-line teaching started in mid-March. When starting the programme, the Ministry should have assessed whether all learners would be in position to take advantage of the facility. On 8th May, Cabinet decided that 2572 tablets will be purchased for learners of Grade 10 to Grade 13, who were on the Social Register Mauritius, to enable them to follow on-line teaching. For more than two months after the start of on-line teaching, these learners presumably did not have the facilities to access on-line teaching. There is no precise indication as to when the tablets will be available to these learners. Is this is not a flagrant case of gross inequity?

This is but a sample of how the principle of equity in the education sector is being handled. Yes, I am terribly worried, and I am sure there are many who will share my concern.

* The coronavirus pandemic has changed how millions around the globe are educated. New solutions for education could bring much needed innovation. Is it not time to reassess and review our educational policies, processes and practices to align them with global best practices?

We are living in a global village and the world is becoming virtual. Complexity is increasing. Knowledge is growing exponentially. Speed is of essence. All these changes are challenging the traditional, old, brick and mortar educational architecture. We cannot sit back and watch the world move forward. We have to be part of the process. We have to be involved.

We have to aim for excellence, for quality of a global standard. This was our ambition in 2005. As Minister of Education of the Labour government, we came up with the concept of a World Class Quality Education. We formulated the Education and HR Strategy for 2008-2013 to position Mauritius as a Regional Education Hub, with alliances with institutions of international repute.

Some twenty years down the road, the writings on the Education wall are not promising. Government’s aim is to reach a target of a Gross Tertiary Enrolment Ratio (GTER) of 60% in the years to come. But when we see the achievement of our learners at the School Certificate level, with only some 20% of candidates attaining 5 Credits, the future of our Higher Education sector does not look bright.

The corona pandemic has come as an adversity; it has exposed our limitations. But it has also provided us with some useful insights about the huge potential of a society driven by knowledge. It has provided us with a wake-up call for a New Education Agenda. A New Educational Strategy. With innovation as the way forward

* What else do you think might be envisaged in terms of innovation whether with regard to teaching and learning, syllabus, etc?

In 1996, Jacques Delors who chaired the International Commission on Education on Education (UNESCO) for the 21st Century, produced a report entitled “Learning: the treasure within.” In that report, he argued that learning should not be limited to what happens within the four walls of a classroom. Learning should a holistic, comprehensive and multidimensional process. He promoted a philosophy of life-long learning where a learner learns how to learn and provided a framework for organising learning into four pillars: Learning to know; learning to live together; learning to do and learning to be.

In the twenty-first century where every human being must be able to develop his or her full potential and live a life of fulfilment, we could add a fifth pillar: Learning to lead.

Delors’ philosophy and framework are still valid for reshaping the educational landscape, with technology playing a catalytic role.

In the Scandinavian countries, they are experimenting with a new approach to the whole idea of curriculum design where instead of silos-type individual subject-based learning, the trend is to adopt the Learning Areas concept which has a holistic developmental orientation with a mix of both academic and non-academic aspects.

Another innovative approach to curriculum design is the adoption of the STREAM CURRICULUM , an innovative, engaging and interactions based curriculum, focusing on 6 stream skills (Science, Technology, Reading, Engineering, Art and Maths) and 5 core skills (Relate, Regulate, Think, Communicate and Move).

These are but a few thoughts that could help educational policy makers, planners and practitioners to reshape and revitalise the educational agenda.

* As regards the coronavirus pandemic itself, even in the absence of a comparative standard, there is consensus that the Government has managed the health and sanitary issue rather well, and that we’ll hopefully be better prepared for a future pandemic. Do you agree?

As you put it, in the absence of a valid comparative standard, the Government may take credit for what it has done. However, a critical assessment of how the pandemic has been handled will reveal that there were a number of unnecessary hiccups that could have been avoided.

Earlier I gave a few examples.

On the other hand, let us also not discount the fact that in spite of the dreadful nature of the pandemic, within the Government, the MSM component was able to stage-manage a partisan Public Relations agenda, with some political mileage as a windfall.

Since the pandemic is still around and since we may face other pandemics in future, what is important is to draw from this experience and ensure that a proper system of surveillance is put in place and that we upgrade our state of preparedness and our build our capacity for risk and crisis management.

* What are your thoughts about the measures proposed for economic recovery in the Budget 2020-21?

Taking into consideration the global economic outlook, and being given that our economy is an export oriented economy, prospects for economic recovery will depend a lot on:

 (a) how the traditional sectors respond to the measures announced in the 2020-2021 budget,

(b) how fast the global economy picks up,

(c) how effective Government is in the implementation process and last, but not the least,

(d) how the Government handles its overall Good Governance credentials, especially in the international arena.

Lately there have been a number of embarrassing cases of unethical and alleged illegal financial transactions which may discourage foreign investors. I have in mind here, in particular, the recent ADB (African Development Bank) findings about alleged corrupt transactions between the Danish enterprise B&W (Burmeister & Wain) and certain individuals connected with the CEB St-Louis project.

The other factor which will impact on the recovery process is the Covid-19 pandemic itself. The longer it stays around and the longer it takes to produce an effective vaccine, the greater the risk of a delayed recovery. All in all, we have to brace ourselves for some difficult days ahead.

* One last question: how are your friends in the opposition doing?

I think they are doing fine. The difficult part was after the defeat at the 2019 polls. But times are changing and events are playing in their favour. Also, people are coming to realise that Government cannot continue to blame the previous government when it is facing difficulty in honouring its promises. Nor can it continue to use as precedent past wrongdoings of the previous government to justify its own wrongdoings.

Politics is often like the ebb and flow of the ocean, and since times are changing, who knows, the tides may change as well… in the days to come.

* Published in print edition on 12 June 2020

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