Towards a national Education Reform Commission

Political parties, ministers, administrators and cadres have, for decades, felt the need for some meaningful reform in the education sector. In the local multi-factorial context with its own dynamics, this has never proved an easy task

By Dr S. Callikan

What follows, rather than being another critique of the unfortunate Nine Year Schooling reforms underway, aims at proposing a desirable approach for evolving an education system that would, in my opinion, be more responsive to our needs, more adapted to our socio-cultural realities and constitute a relatively robust and resilient legacy for future generations, independently of political vagaries.

We are all too aware of the potential damage of blundering into a major disruptive reform by even the most well-meaning Minister and a small coterie of advisors and technicians who may be pushing their own agendas, administrators who are masters at playing up to their political overlords and institutions that are chaperoned by political appointees and which may be rather wary of giving their best advice freely.

Political parties, ministers, administrators and cadres have, for decades, felt the need for some meaningful reform in the education sector, either to reduce competitive pressures, broaden opportunities or meet growing parental expectations. In the local multi-factorial context with its own dynamics, this has never proved an easy task. One will recall the days of Kadress Pillay’s rejected formulations in the nineties, however convinced he might have been of holding the right answers.

Former Minister Obeegadoo in the MSM-MMM alliance of 2000-2005, with that experience in mind, was equally determined to see some reform through, although, in retrospect, he might feel he was very poorly served by his chosen pick of advisors. The plan, though rejected by the Catholic Education Authorities and private sector, did not see the latter rush back to the drawing boards; they chose rather to impose it on the rest of the public sector. This lone fact, coupled with strict regionalisation for college access, created the conditions for fundamental distortions in social equity that contributed in large measure with popular and parental dissatisfaction round the countryside.

One might have thought that Minister Dookhun, a Cabinet member of that government and an experienced practitioner in a private Catholic institution, despite some old-timer advisors, would have been doubly wary of the pitfalls awaiting eager Ministers bent on imposing their idea of a meaningful reform without paying adequate regard to pedagogical implications, to social equity aspects and without sufficient forward planning. Astute polity and Ministers should have ingrained the lessons to be drawn from the previous political experiences.

And yet here again, as a stalwart MSM Minister, she finds herself in exactly the same position as her former Ministerial colleague, pushing a Reform that includes non-transparency and strict regionalisation for college access, and whose flagship elite Academies have been rejected by both private sector and the Catholic authorities, now termed SeDEC. It should have been obvious from the start that they would see no sense in the extra hurdle of National Form III examinations, of dubious use anyway, nor in the migration of their better-faring students to public Academies.

As practitioner Minister Dookhun is perfectly entitled to her views on an appropriate Education system for the country and, as Minister, for the boldness and drive to push her Reform agenda through, yet the flaws and challenges we drew attention to repeatedly since 2015, are now increasingly palpable in the public perception. As these have been rather lengthily summed up in a previous contribution (….), we will spare more space on the topic.

But we must note that, while her former colleague Obeegadoo had the saving grace of leaving a legacy of 30-odd college buildings that have been put to good use by the LP-led regimes since 2005 and have brought value for future generations, we cannot say the same today. Unfortunately for parents and children, Minister Dookhun’s legacy will have severely restricted good College studies to some 1200 seats in Elite Academies and included measures to further curtail downstream access to Lower VI classes only to holders 4 and 5 credits at the School Certificate examinations, intensified competition and imposed an exam-orientation that extends from Std V (for PSAC) right up to Form V (for 4-5 credits).

It is a ghastly prospect for all those parents and children who, with legitimate aspirations for better college environments or better opportunities, have understood the perverse implications of that grinding-machine and have been desperately seeking admission in fee-paying private schools or the limited confessional school seats since 2016.

That those excluded from mainstream or quality education, the Form III or Form V “rejects”, have no structured alternatives or exit pathways, not even the residuals of pre-vocational education, only compounds matters to the extent that pointing out some “holistic” school activities looks, with due respect, like celebrating curtains quality on a structurally flawed building.

Let us turn rather to what, on the basis of those experiences, would appear to be a more resilient approach to reform, if we, quite understandably, do not wish for a simple roll-back to the status-quo ante. We can recognise that Education’s purview is a broad and complex one, representing some 12% of all government expenditures and currently an administrative behemoth that employs one SCE and several Permanent Secretaries (PS) and Assistants, not to mention Directorates and satellite structures like the MIE, the PSSA or the MES governing the primary-secondary conundrum. We are here not even concerned with the state of MITD as our national training and vocational institution, nor with further education at tertiary publicly-funded institutions, including universities.

We can also recognise that no primary-secondary education system or reform will entirely satisfy all constituents and players, and that, while many of us are familiar or point to advanced economies (Scandinavian systems, Singapore or Western Europe generally), we have to draw or reflect on relevant lessons abroad while developing and charting a pathway that is suitable for our own complexities, our sociological and structural make-up, and one that is responsive both to our special set of problems while looking at a twenty-year horizon of the country’s needs in a changing global economy. We undoubtedly have the resources in the country for such an exercise.

To tread therefore where many previous Ministers, advisors and institutional teams have trod without hitting on what population, pedagogues and polity would consider a stable education matrix responsive to our current national context and future demands, requires a different mechanism, one of consultation with all stakeholders and, in particular, pedagogues, front-liners, trade unions, administrators from different constituent interests and all those parents or concerned public wishing to contribute submissions on specific or more general aspects.

A national Commission on Education Reform set-up under the aegis of the Ministry of Education with some clear key political desirables or guiding parameters and a timeline for submitting its Report and recommendations to the parent Ministry, as envisioned by the LP, would be a better way forward for any future political regime or alliance.

Such a Commission should have sufficient autonomy and delegated authority to engage the process with different stakeholders, ability to call upon resources and cooperation of all other existing public education institutions and, where necessary, outside or private sector specialists, to come up with concrete alternatives and scenarios within those established parameters in a reasonable time-frame.

Part of its mandate may well include early political deliverables such as interim recommendations towards the organised disentanglement from the unacceptable aspects of Nine-Year Schooling, dismantling the unnecessary Form III examinations, restoring parity between state and non-state sectors and ending the fatuously-termed Academies as higher secondary schools for a highly restrictive “elite”.

However, in matters of planning and implementing changes that would likely redraw our education structures and processes for the longer-term horizon, without jeopardising social equity nor the dynamics between public and private partners, while enabling the development of the country’s youth and provide “wins” for all stakeholders, the haste to implement insufficiently planned reforms because of the electoral horizons should be a resistible urge.

* Published in print edition on 1 February 2019

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