Education Reform: Ambushed?

The population should not be ambushed into a “fait accompli” by a step-wise innocuous-looking Reform approach that could ultimately jeopardise progress achieved over decades

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 children irrespective of gender, background or region, while motivating the brightest to reach for their full potential.

We need not go over the largely unsatisfactory logistical state of many of our pre-primary and primary schools, including toilet amenities, nor of their teaching environment. The numerous problems that have accumulated over the years in our secondary streams, despite it must be admitted a rather plethoric pedagogical superstructure at Education House, are a real concern: 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 Ministry has instead concentrated its guns and undoubted pedagogical expertise on a fundamental restructuring of the primary to secondary transition, through the implementation of the theoretical Nine-Year Schooling (NYS) concept, an idea that seems to have been mooted by Education establishment for decades, largely unsuccessfully. Pretty diagrams and flowcharts were floated around July last year and tight implementation schedules firmly announced, much to the initial applause of mainstream media.

We were bold enough even then to suggest that while improvements to our state or national education system should be embraced, a proposed reform that will have far-reaching implications, some of which will only be felt over the medium-term, should be done on clear and level-headed information of all stakeholders, most particularly parents around the countryside who are already moving into anguish mode.

On the budgetary and public financing front, the implications of the various components of the Reform Plan have yet to be assessed and detailed. Private sector and confessional schools, responsible for some 60% of good secondary intakes have balked at the Reform proposals, dismissed the relevance and are unlikely to buy into the “National” Form III exams scenario. The latter looks set to be a harassing and intensely competitive hurdle meant for public stream students only. A stark throwback to the 2003 Reform imposed on public sector only and whose more damaging implications had to be corrected by the Alliance Sociale of 2005.

Nobody has as yet worked out the subjects, the examinable components or their weightage of the future “Public Sector Form III exams”. Yet, these will determine the future of public stream students into a selected number of prized, well-endowed and pompously titled “Academies”, which can only accommodate a maximum of some 1000 students anyway. This would favour “elitism” dramatically.

As a natural consequence, future laureates will only emerge from private and confessional star colleges or from the privileged few admitted to the public Academies. The 6 to 7000 remaining public stream students, confined to their localities, will have to be content with bravely continuing their education efforts in regional SSS that would have been deprived of their best elements and where, in all likelihood, a pervasive sense of abandon and demotivation could drag student misbehaviour to unsuspected depths.

In the absence therefore of a White Paper or of a comprehensive document setting key objectives and outlining means to achieve them, including some analysis of all aspects and implications, parents and educators rightly feel they are being gang-pressed and literally ambushed into a piecemeal, stepwise implementation of key transformational measures that will have far-reaching impact. The new Primary School Achievement Certificate (PSAC) has thus been promulgated to take effect for students emerging two years down the road from the primary cycle. Professional educators now foresee a widespread “rat race” from Form I onwards, not to mention the three final years of primary schools.

Many answers are still hanging in mid-air while parents have to make key decisions now regarding the future fate of their progeny. The Minister has lately initiated a series of meetings with primary sector educationists but technicalities about new curricula, new subjects, new exams, new workloads are not what parents and educators are increasingly worried about. The muted and polite scepticism at those official gatherings and the Tuesday article in l’Express should wake up the Ministry to the major disruptions and difficulties ahead.

Shortly after the July 2015 announcements, we flagged here some major concerns and invited the Ministry to tread with caution and review the major social and educational implications of NYS in the Mauritian context. The highest authorities of the land, including the President of the Republic, have lauded free secondary education as a major contributor to social and national development, a visionary initiative that brought quality education opportunities to one and all in townships, cities and remotest villages.

It has made possible the successful launch of many of today’s economic development platforms (cybercity, financial services, offshore, tourism, etc). It was one of the true cornerstones of SSR and LP philosophy extending from primary to university levels and has proved an invaluable legacy, fought for and implemented at times of scanty resources.

Others in the much better times of the eighties and nineties tried to keep the ambitions for equity, quality, affordable education and universal access alive but by the turn of last century, parental demand for good education had largely outstripped the Ministry planners. “Star schools” both in public and confessional arenas and private tuition industry took their flight. Fee-paying private secondary schools found room to thrive.

Today, we concur fully with the need to reduce undue pressures for junior students and favour their fuller development in less stressful and more conducive learning environments. We cannot but agree even more with every meaningful attempt to leave no children behind and address the chronic failure of our education system to provide minimum literacy and numeracy to 30% or more of them, year in, year out. But we cannot sympathise with some of the unacceptable end-results of NYS as pushed by its theoretical proponents. Nor with the immense national resources that would be required for a proposed elitist and private tuition system that will favour and entrench the natural advantages of the better off.

The population should not be ambushed into a “fait accompli” by a step-wise innocuous-looking Reform approach that could ultimately jeopardise progress achieved over decades. Those key concerns had already been highlighted last year in this paper, shortly after the official presentations by the Ministry. They are getting more worrisome and the answers have not been forthcoming.

*  Published in print edition on 18 March 2016

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