Leela Devi-Dookhun has a lot going for her, and here we are not making any reference to rumours that see her positioned as a quietly rising MSM figurehead with an undoubted political future. It is as a determined reform-minded Minister of Education that she is showing why that confidence may not be misplaced.
At the tertiary education level she has been astute enough to call for an outside review of our institutions and legislation funded by the European Union and we have to await the outcome of stakeholder consultations following the preliminary consultant report to gauge the depth, scope and effectiveness of proposed changes. We have adequate inherent abilities to take stock of our strengths and weaknesses, to understand the local context and history but an external input often serves as comforting authority in a country reputed for lobbyists, vested interests, political interference and an inbuilt bias not to trust its own competencies.
It is her proposals for reform of our primary to secondary transition, revolving around the nine-year schooling concept that concern us here. As a career educator who showed during last year’s campaign trail a mastery of the numerous issues plaguing our primary and secondary education system, few were better placed to plan, guide and drive the commitment to change. She benefits from a rare set of favorable circumstances: a government alliance with an overriding majority in Parliament, the benefit of groundwork laid out by her predecessor, in particular a national forum held end 2013 and a number of previous Education Ministers who have each, irrespective of party affiliations, tried to implement a reform agenda and who have expressed support for the principle of nine-year schooling.
Having secured approval of her “concept paper” by Cabinet two months ago, the Minister has again taken every precaution to thrash out concrete issues with all stakeholders. Quite normal since it is a major change with wide-ranging implications and many unanswered implementation questions had been raised when the details were presented in a leading daily (l’express 1st June 2015). From what we gather, the cycle of consultations has now been satisfactorily concluded, which implies that the Ministry should be ready to present to parents and the wider public the details of the reforms envisaged under the nine-year schooling concept. Everybody wishes, for the sake of parents, children and society that her proposals effectively address and correct the key issues that have been the subject of numerous analyses and commentaries.
Nobody needs the sort of volatile controversies and heavy-handedness that bedevilled the previous reforms of Minister Obeegadoo to rear their head again. Although the latter can be credited with introducing grading instead of ranking, regionalisation of admissions and building a number of new colleges, the underlying pedagogical and sociological flaws of five-year colleges and two-year cramming schools (Forms VI) for the public sector, while the private sector retained full operation of their “star schools”, were never resolved. The autocratic prevention of all State colleges, including the likes of Royal Colleges, MGI, QEC, JKC and others to run their Upper Forms, flying in the face of extended BEC privileges, was poisoned chalice for the MMM-MSM alliance at the 2005 elections.
Every pedagogue and even former advisors have since belatedly recognised that the conceptual carving of 5+2 years secondary schooling was misconceived and should have been scuttled once private sector had made its staunch opposition known. The carving was nevertheless forced onto the public sector, notwithstanding the damaging distortions of equity it would provoke in the traditional end-of-secondary school laureateship system. It was a recipe for social strife and it befell the LP-led Alliance Sociale government to redress the deep anomalies by restoring State national colleges and creating a range of full seven-year colleges round the countryside, in one stroke doubling State Form I intake capacity, considerably attenuating the competitive nature of the CPE exams and laying the foundations for several laureates to emerge from the regional network of full-fledged State colleges.
Since then, competition has eased further through natural population dynamics factors: there were, from official statistics for 2014 (Mauritius and Rodrigues combined), near 19,500 students at Form V, less than 18,000 at Form I and less than 16,000 at Standard I of primary intakes, a downward trend. Even without further additions, the Form I Intake capacity of about 7,200 in State secondary schools (national and regional, excluding those in MEDCO & REDCO schools), represents a growing fraction of demand and less competitive pressures.
That the question of equity for laureateships should remain an important factor in policy and decision-making was aptly summed up by Mr Jacques Malié, Rector of the St-Esprit College, who had this to say: “Depuis 2000, on a toujours des lauréats. Certaines années on a eu huit ou dix. Il est normal qu’on essaie de perpétuer cette tradition autant que possible.” (Le Défi Quotidien – vendredi 10 février 2012). This comes as no surprise from private sector star-school representatives. It should not disbar government from considering avenues of reform that do not place this self-evident principle of equity at risk.
Let us be clear here that probably everybody concurs with the key problems any meaningful reform of the primary-secondary transition should address and it is in that light that the proposals being put forward by the Ministry should be dispassionately assessed for effectiveness. To our layman understanding these would be as follows: unacceptably high failure rates at CPE, stressful competition for good secondary schools, the private tuition industry that thrives around the CPE, equity for laureateships, participation of private sector in the national reforms.
For starters, let’s go over the undoubted pluses of the Ministry’s reform proposals as we gather from the press. Everybody concurs that keeping children at school for nine full years from primary school going age is to be applauded and that curricula can be adapted to integrate more time for sports, cultural, vocational and civic development activities. Many will also agree with some measure of continuous assessment, provided we ensure that the principle does not get derailed and clogged by all too possible controversies. The integration of remedial education from the earliest stages of detection at primary levels and vocational streaming after the CPE to suit individual temperaments should have been a reality a long time ago.
The CPE will be abolished in its present form and replaced by a double assessment, one a Primary Achievement School Certificate and the second a post-Form III National Certificate of Education. The abnormally high failure rates at CPE (some 25-30%) are a tragic reflection that considerable resources and six years of input by, we assume, dedicated teachers and ministerial oversight have consistently failed to address that admittedly complex issue. No mention is made of the ZEP initiatives and whether these demonstrated that high CPE failure rates were not so inevitable through concerted remedial action. It seems that the Ministry and educators consider it preferable to extend basic schooling onto nine years and roll over “failures” at CPE (or the new PASC exam) onto the Lower secondary schools. A commendable way out of the social stigmate of CPE-failure and a welcome integration of vocational streaming over 4 years instead of 3 for other students, ending the pre-voc education.
The major interrogations lay elsewhere and we have every reason to believe that the Ministry has concluded its consultations over those questions. It would be in the public interest that some of the doubts be dispelled:
- a) the bruising and stress of competition at an early age (CPE) should have been waived away. In practice, is it giving way to a double level of competition, the first at PASC to gain access to better regional colleges and a second, three years later, at the National Form III exams, which will control access to the coveted new stars of the system, the Senior Secondary Schools of Forms IV to VI, or so-called Academies?
- b) since the current best national State colleges will be converted into Academies and prevented from recruiting first year students, intake capacity in better State colleges will be reduced by about a thousand places or more to about 6,000. Is this likely to intensify the competitive pressures at both exam levels and transform laudable intent into an extended bruising scenario for children and parents?
- c) many parents and children have accepted private tuition as a necessary evil in the final years of primary education, knowing that their progeny would have respite for a few years in decent secondary schools. Are we paving the way for extending the back-breaking system where the private tuition industry will now cover every single year of education from about Standard IV of primary schools up to Form VI?
- d) what proportion of children will have to migrate a few times, changing environments, friends and social networks, changing even it seems from single-sex to co-ed institutions and back, as they trudge along from primary to LSS then again to the final four-year Academies? If the latter garner more and better resources than Regional colleges of yesteryear, will students pursuing their studies at the latter institutions essentially forego all chances at laureateships?
- e) how national will be the Form III exams? In other words, will the private sector participate in the process? If they do, accessorily the Ministry may wish to elaborate on how many seats the publicly-funded BEC will offer as general access to its own future Academies?
The Minister is in a hurry, understandably from a political viewpoint, since major reforms have to be engaged in the first years of office. She understands the complexity of the issues, the massive costs required for successful implementation, the necessity to explain to parents the rationale of the drastic changes being considered. She knows all too well the difficulties faced by her predecessors and understands she has to steer the necessity of educational reform away from partisan politics. She has to be commended and we hope the Ministry’s answers confirm that they have got it right and she has indeed a convincing case to sell.
- Published in print edition on 7 August 2015