Education reform: more haste, less speed!

A couple of weeks ago we had the opportunity here to commend the new Minister of Education, Hon Leela Devi-Dookun, for tackling the bull by the horns and launching, barely seven months after taking office, what is undoubtedly a major proposal for restructuring of our primary to secondary school system.

The Minister’s intent, motivations, background competencies and sincerity of purpose cannot be faulted. Neither is anybody, including trade unions and body politic of all hues, unaware of the imperatives for redesigning our system to address today’s blatant shortcomings.

Society owes it to the youth of tomorrow and the concerned parents of today that their kids are in a rejuvenated pedagogical environment that alleviates bruising stress, provides pathways of integration, socialisation and development for all, while motivating the brightest to reach for their full potential.

As in any such transformational chart, there are several good features, some moot points and many reasons for disquiet, which the different presentations by the Minister and her top cadres have not quite dispelled. As the changes proposed will have far-reaching implications, some of which will only be felt over the medium-term, it is right that, however close the Ministry may feel it is to a satisfactory outcome, those qualms and reservations be neither dismissed nor treated with cavalier expediency.

The political conditions for change are there early in a mandate, yet nobody would look askance at a Minister who, having trodden wisely up till now in the birthing of what is probably the most comprehensive documented plan to implement the nine-year schooling concept, takes a step back for a few months and invites all concerned parties to submit their suggestions and alternatives.

In fact, that is precisely what the process of a White Paper is about when such important reforms are in the pipeline: setting out the background, the current statistical summaries and forecasts, identifying the major problems and the proposed scenario for the future. Not everyone is a technician, pedagogue or former Minister of Education to grasp the constraints and reasoning behind the current plan, yet everybody is one way or another concerned, if not as current or future parent or as educator, at least as public fund provider.

Be that as it may, having missed the boat of a White Paper, there is still time to step back and not rush through a reform that has already raised confusion and concern regarding some aspects, while major private sector players, including the BEC, have yet to take a firm stand regarding what are supposed to be “national” examinations. A major education partner of authorities, running publicly funded institutions with semi-autonomous intakes, the BEC operates some 50 primary schools, 6 Forms I-V and a dozen full seven-year secondary colleges, mostly regarded as elite or star education providers.

Clearly, the position of the Catholic Authorities relative to a national scheme cannot be ignored. They, like the rest of the population need some time to assess the strengths and merits of what has been chalked out and may come up with judicious amendments to clarify moot points or even alternative avenues of reform. The lid should not be clamped in unnecessary haste.

The administrative, technical and pedagogical cadres of the Ministry and the MIE constitute an undoubted wealth of talent, experience and university degrees. They are the backroom cooks and chefs that provide every new political manager with the recipes that should fit the political agenda of the incumbent and the national interests. Even if some have hardly left their air-con offices and may not know the “terrain” first-hand, they are the experts who, in this particular instance, cajole and comfort the Minister’s own vast experience and track record in the secondary school profession.

Yet, one may feel that they have been currying the nine-year schooling concept for quite a while, in fact, ever since the days of Sir Kher Jagatsingh. Surely, they can’t be accused of running round in circles nor of consistent “in the box” thinking. They have “smartened” up today’s version with some new terminology likely to impress favourably, grades instead of Forms, Academies and Polytechnics have been astutely roped in.

What really matters are (a) whether the proposal at hand answers the identified shortcomings and paves a better future environment (b) what are the logical predictable consequences of today’s plans, and (c) the financial and resource costs of implementation and operation should be made clear.

We have previously and the press has also underscored the positives in the plans the Minister is pressing along with and we will not dwell lengthily on them. We can sympathise with an unstated objective: removal of the social stigma of CPE failure and no reporting of the disastrous “CPE failure rates” which every Minister and the whole ministry cadres, staffers and educators have to contend with year in and year out. Schools cannot correct social, family and new-age dysfunctionings nor can traditional schools, educators and pedagogical approaches cater for both selection and certification in six years.

We can applaud the necessity to keep children in a learning and socialisation environment for a longer time spread and appreciate the efforts to help along those who, early on in school life, disconnect tragically with traditional teaching methods. We also welcome attempts to introduce a degree of continuous assessment that can be safely and equitably applied and the spreading of final examination weightage over two years and a mix of core and non-core subjects.

We can understand that smaller academies (four years instead of seven) with a possibly different management style, should be better equipped to handle student rowdiness, absenteeism, indiscipline, drug and alcohol consumption episodes and the general dereliction of values in the new social networking and peer-pressure age.

The areas of concern are elsewhere and they are indeed worrisome at this stage. All past Ministers of Education, including Kadress Pillay, Vasant Bunwaree, Steven Obeegadoo and Dharam Gokhool have rightfully applauded the Minister’s intent, noted the good points of her proposals and voiced out their concerns over some key issues that need further thinking.

Nobody can imagine that the Minister has closed up shop in the face of substantial uncertainties that have been raised from public non-partisan voices across the board. Despite the absence of a White Paper, now is the time to step back, invite informed comments or alternatives, take stock and adjust where advisable before proceeding full throttle. A one-year postponement in implementation to take suggestions and proposals on board and refine the reform would not create irreparable damage and would only go to the Minister’s credit. More haste, less speed goes the saying.

 

  • Published in print edition on 28 August 2015

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