Ask the wrong questions and you are unlikely, save by sheer accident, to reach the right answers. It is not too late to realise the impasse and inject new thinking for a necessary structural reform
The Minister of Education must be commended for having come out with a proposed radical re-engineering of the very way the country’s primary to secondary education is structured, in answer to the growing need for reform to address major issues plaguing the sector. We will consider some of its key implications here. In the constraints of limited space and to avoid the tedium of pedagogical and theoretical constructs which could occupy volumes, we will abstain from belabouring the obvious importance of a sound and fundamentally healthy education system.
Nine-year schooling, at the heart of today’s ministerial plans, has been floated for nearly half-a-century, largely unsuccessfully for a variety of good reasons, and the last attempt to thrash out the complex issues around its implementation dates back to October 2013. The Minister’s determined attempt today to push it through can only mean that both the Ministry staffers and the portfolio holder, after six months of consultations and planning, have finally come up trumps: a refined version of what has been so long in gestation and that aims to really set the stage for future generations.
It should have been most welcome and consensual, yet even the most casual of observers will recognise that this is far from the case. Initial enthusiasm by some press quarters and trade-unions have waned off; independent analysts, pedagogues and previous Ministers have pointed out many areas of uncertainties over the past few weeks, and we have ourselves drawn attention to potentially damaging impacts and the consequences of overhasty implementation. The costs and resources for satisfactory implementation and its timing have, as yet, not been quantified. More importantly, the private school managers and confessional schools, including the Bureau de l’Education Catholique, collectively responsible for 60% or more of education provision, look acutely uncomfortable, which speaks volumes about the advisability to proceed full throttle with the proposed “national” reform agenda.
We will not go over the main lines of the reform that have been lengthily outlined by the Minister in press and radio presentations. In the following commentary, let us clarify that the importance, necessity, intent and timing of a determined reform is not at issue. We need not underline the breadth and depth of problems the Minister herself recognises and that are not being addressed through this reform: early pre-schooling preparedness, decent amenities and basic sanitary facilities in our schools, classroom sizes and teacher work conditions, occasional vociferous parental intrusion, rowdiness, indiscipline, absenteeism, proliferation of gangs, rackets, abusive phone usage, and far more worryingly, instances of drug and alcohol consumption.
Let us proceed rather onto what the Reform proposes to address.
CPE failure rates: a tragic symptom of deeper complex familio-social undercurrents, the 30% failures and up to 50% of our kids that are barely functionally literate and numerate after 6 years of primary schooling has been ongoing for far too long with a profound impact on children, future adults and society.
The mix of solutions that have been tried over the years is commendable but ZEP schools, remedial support, mixed ability education and other means remain what they were meant to be, that is, “palliative” or corrective measures to help disconnected children back into traditional teaching folds, the efficacy being measured against the CPE results.
Teachers and establishment caught between the double nature of CPE, certification instrument of knowledge transferred and competitive selection for “better” secondary schools, annually face the prospect of awkward questions about considerable resources spent against persistent dismal CPE outcomes.
Getting rid of CPE, rolling over the “CPE failures” onto colleges mechanically or through some minimal assessment or providing more years (8-10) to achieve basic literacy/numeracy, with better “palliative” or “support” mechanisms, inspires the nine-year schooling concept. It is the core of this proposed Reform. Throwing away the thermometer never cured a fever.
Competition: No system, here or anywhere in the world, will rid parental perceptions of good, better and “star” schools and we have to recognise their inherent ability to weigh their alternatives and act accordingly: seeking the best place where their kids can have a secure atmosphere, decent teaching and lab resources, good supervision and dedicated teaching staff, decent sports, equipment and other facilities. A minority may also consider that their 11-12 year-old offspring have the capacities and potential to emerge as laureates or well ranked for an overseas scholarship.
Not curiously, the Reform makes matters far worse in competition terms, since it plans to remove 11 best State schools from Form I intake, reducing perceived “good” seats by a thousand places or more. The Primary School Achievement Certificate (PSAC) to grade kids for access onto the better regional schools, and the considerable uncertainties around the form and foolproof credibility of this novel screening examination will not do away with severe competition.
Private tuition: Probably a unique phenomenon by its sheer intensity and prevalence, it is the result of both willing providers and willing payers, in a situation where seats at “good” secondary establishments are limited and parents are forced to act accordingly. It has reached industrial status, deeply ingrained in the final years of primary schools targeting the best CPE results and will, we suspect, perdure with equal vigour for the PSAC, under less transparent conditions than the CPE. To simply dismiss the phenomenon as one of parental responsibility (or irresponsibility) only avoids the issues of access and equity.
The reform has no specific answers to the existing issue in the primary sector and only compounds it by whittling down good secondary places by a thousand seats or more.
The Form III national examinations: The crowning cherry on the cake of Nine-year schooling will now unabashedly be an intense selection and grading exercise, coming hard on the heels of the PSAC. The reform proposal intends to select “star schools” from its network of National and Regional colleges: they will be restyled as “Academies”, accepting only the best post Form III students, severely limiting access down to a choice 1000 places.
The Academies will be expected to garner full attention and resources, but those unable to get coveted access there, will end up struggling as “left-overs” in their regional schools, where one can easily imagine the accentuation of current indiscipline and unchecked rowdiness.
One can only smile at the naïveté of charts and pathways where children will naturally grade out seamlessly onto Academies, left-over SSS, or Technical/Vocational schools. The latter look like an after-thought, for those unfit for either the star stream, the average left-over stream, presumably, therefore for those who would have fared badly at CPE. As for announced Polytechnics one wonders what their entrance requirements and students will be when government, judging by the Budget Speech, has no clear idea what to do with the MITD itself.
If this proposal is not profoundly “elitist”, it certainly sounds and feels like it.
This reform will have several important implications:
(a) one cannot but foresee that future laureates from State schools can only emerge from the 1000 selected few rather than from the wider pool of some 7000 across the national and regional network of good public colleges introduced as from 2005. This reversal of policy regarding key questions of equity and access will have a critical impact up and down the country;
(b) the intensification of private tuition throughout practically all years of education, from primary Standard IV to School Certificate and Higher School Certificate will transform education into “killing fields”, with no respite or breathing space for the vast majority of parents or children who will be facing successive exams every two to three years;
(c) parents taking cognizance of the implications above are already taking stock of their limited options: leave the public school streams and “run for cover” onto either fee-paying private schools, if they can, or to the better private or confessional institutions which may continue to enjoy recruitment autonomy; we wonder if the BEC, after weighing the latter implication on its future growth prospects, will not end up supporting a Reform it does not really believe in;
(d) as for the “specialisation” idea floated for Academies, we better reserve comments on what looks like a theoretical idea, until we know better how a deserving student from Surinam whose only offer for IT studies is at an Academy up north will cope.
In its present form, the result of prolonged education establishment planning, this Reform entertains many misgivings and will have serious implications. We also understand the deep reservations of private sector partners, parents and educators. The case is made here that the collective “in-the-box” education establishment thinking or the sense of going round in circles for thirty odd years is not merely accidental: It is the expected faulty outcome of a faulty starting point analysis. In other words, ask the wrong questions and you are unlikely, save by sheer accident, to reach the right answers. It is not too late to realise the impasse and inject new thinking for a necessary structural reform.
- Published in print edition on 11 September 2015