The Education Reform Dilemma

A Reform that starts out with good intentions to reduce stress, reduce competition fuelled by private tuition, provide equitable learning opportunities for all, promote holistic development of all children looks curiously set to fail on each of these counts and will induce some far-reaching perverse effects on our education system

The first stage of an Education Reform Agenda, ensuring Quality, Equity and Access (QEA) was set in 2005 when the Labour Party-Alliance Sociale created a network of seven-year National Colleges on top of Regional Colleges, an electorally-sanctioned move which had several consequences:

◦       Form I intake capacity in good State Secondary establishments (National & Regional) was doubled to reach about 7200 spread in nearly 70 public establishments;

◦       combined with good offers in Private & Confessional schools (a total 60% of student intakes) this reduced considerably the competitive pressures at an early age;

◦       access to good State secondary establishments, which was purely regional in the Obeegadoo reform, became open to all gifted and talented children from any area of Mauritius, who could aspire for a place in the National Colleges on merit;

◦       the pedagogically untenable (5yr SSS + 2yr “HSC cramming schools”) of 2003, which had been rejected by Private & Confessional authorities and nevertheless imposed by the Ministry ONLY on public colleges, was dismantled in 2005.

MGI, Royal Colleges, QEC, Maurice Cure and other public colleges that were outstanding places of study for all deserving students independently of region of living, were restored to their full seven-year status.

Regional Colleges were beefed up and Laureates have begun to emerge from this regional network of colleges, something all parents, media and pedagogues have acknowledged, attesting that the Reforms of 2005, with the dedication of countless parents, educators and rectors, were bearing their expected Quality, Equity and Access fruits. However, more remained to be done to alleviate competitive pressures at an early age for admission into Public or Private/Confessional Star schools and to revamp Technical and Vocational Education into a respectable stream from early ages.

Those reforms were apparently backed up by increasing support initiatives for students in difficulties (ZEP schools, computer labs in primary schools and tablets in secondary schools, free meals, summer schools, pre-vocational education, pre-primary schooling, free transport to all students, etc) and some attempts to reduce private tuition.

In 2010, it seems that a commitment was taken to do away with the CPE and mitigate the bruising effects of competition at an early age. A series of initiatives were taken to that end culminating in a national workshop on Nine Year Schooling (NYS) in October 2013. It failed to get conclusive consensus on the best way to implement the NYS reform without putting in peril the progress achieved since 2005 in terms of Quality, Equity and Access. However, the Ministry tentatively launched on pilot basis a National Form III assessment to gauge difficulties.

The Dookhun Reforms

The Priorities

There were, end 2014, numerous areas for continuous improvement in the primary to secondary nexus, most of which had been cogently formulated by the current Minister on the 2014 campaign trail:

reduce CPE failure rates, extension of pre-schooling facilities to more areas, improving amenities and basic sanitary facilities in our schools, classroom sizes and teacher work conditions, problems of indiscipline, absenteeism and far more worryingly, instances of drug and alcohol consumption that have cropped up since January, better integration of Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) in school teaching, adaptation of syllabuses, further reducing early competitive pressures and the impact of private tuition industry…

There is no indication how and when these important issues are being addressed. The Minister and the staffers/advisors/pedagogues of the Ministry have decided that the priority is a structural reform designed to implement Nine Year Schooling.

This is a major reform proposal with numerous implications, a bold decision taken early in the incoming government’s mandate, with a step-wise tight implementation schedule that was announced sometime in mid-2015. We welcomed the ministerial drive and impetus then although there were clearly unanswered questions and areas of major concern. We indicated in the last issue of Mauritius Times that the questions from all quarters were now getting increasingly worrisome and that satisfactory answers were still far from forthcoming. Let us then consider those questions that are raising such considerable flak.

The Objectives of Reform

Regrettably, for such a structural reform that has failed to attract consensus in the past and will have far-reaching consequences, the Ministry did not see it fit to set out the plans, objectives, means and resources required, nor to provide an impact assessment in a comprehensive document.

Neither did the Ministry see it fit, once its proposals were firmed up, to step back and invite all stakeholders and, more particularly, political parties, for their views, so as to avoid a possible costly future reversal of the Dookhun Reform being engaged once again unilaterally, as in the 2000-2005 period.

Whatever consultations with teachers and parent associations that have taken place, have been on the “trust us, we know where we are heading!” mode without answering the legitimate questions many associations, parents and outside analysts have raised. More disturbingly, the attitude “we will implement the Reform by steps!” without giving clear and adequate answers to the broader implications is rather invidious.

Before considering the implications of the proposed Reform, we have to assume some of the key objectives the Dookhun Reform plan sets out to achieve against which we can measure the expected outcomes:

a)     reduce the CPE failure rates and provide all children with minimum basic education including literacy & numeracy skills; gifted and talented children with greater opportunities to pursue their development;

b)     reduce competitive stress throughout the education experience & reduce the “fléau” of the        private tuition industry;

c)     improve Quality, Equity and Access for all children.

The Key Features of the Reform

1.     Basic education is extended over nine years (6 primary + 3 in Lower SS).

2.     The CPE exam is being replaced by the Primary School Achievement Certificate (PSAC) at end of Yr6; former “CPE failures” will be directed onto a new stream of pre-voc classes or special attention colleges to enable them to catch up with their counterparts (over 3-4 years). It is as yet not clear which of these two modes (special classes in the  Lower Secondary Schools or special colleges) is being preferred.

3.     All other students will be graded for Form I access to State Regional Colleges ONLY or Private/Confessional schools.

4.     Some eleven “Star Colleges” of the public sector will stop Form I intake in January 2018 though none of the “star colleges” of Private/Confessional streams will apparently be affected.

5.     A highly selective “National Form III exam” is introduced at end of Form III to screen students onto prized “Academies” (the previous public star schools) running classes from Form IV to Upper VI.

6.     those opting to attend Private & Confessional colleges after the PSAC will in all probability be spared the need for participating in the improperly dubbed “National Form III” examinations.

Many answers are still in mid-air but backstage a large amount of work are probably being conducted towards adapting curricula, addressing staffing & logistical questions and working out reliable examination protocols jointly by Ministry staffers, MIE and MES.

There are some pluses in the changes proposed, the main one relating to the elimination of the CPE and its attendant competitive pressure at an early age. Reviewing pedagogical methods, curricula and providing more time and special attention to the development of children who would have earned the personal and social stigma of “CPE failures” after the PSAC can be said to be welcome.

We have to be concerned here with the unpalatable elements and some disturbing questions.

The Undesirable Consequences of the Reform Plans

I.      PSAC & Regional access:

With the 2005 reforms the Labour Party introduced, Form I access for deserving students was three-fold: national or regional or Private/Confessional. The Dookhun reform (like the Obeegadoo one), will severely restrict access to Form I through:

a) All eleven public “Star Colleges” will stop admitting Form I intake in January 2018.

b) Admission will be on a regional basis ONLY, although we do not know how and if this will be applied to Private/Confessional admissions also.

This double act has several implications:

The intake seats in good public schools will be reduced by about 1200-1500. No information is available as to how the Ministry aims to compensate this significant downsizing (-20%) of access to good Form I colleges in the public sector.

National competitiveness and selection at CPE risks being transformed into equally fearsome regional competitiveness for PSAC through parental perceptions of regional SSS on offer in their particular region.

Will the protocols of transparency and equity embodied in the CPE be reliably replaced by the complex system of PSAC extending over 3 years (4e, 5e & 6e) with part continuous and part annual/final exams?

How many thorny and lengthy contestations can be expected, with possible allegations of impropriety?

Who will arbiter these and how long might such grumblings, justified or not, delay Form I intakes?

As teachers will mediate the continuous assessment components of PSAC, can we expect more parents to seek some comfort through extended private tuition? There is a strong likelihood that private tuition will continue unabated in the primary sector.

Bright or gifted/talented students will only go to the college of his/her area, e.g. Laventure, Grand Gaube or Surinam. He or she will only aspire to important first years of college studies in a local environment, usually deprived of cultural and other facilities an urban child enjoys.

II.     National Form III exams:

These examinations are intended to displace competition and selection from the early CPE age to end of Form III. Results are meant to distinguish students who will qualify for a seat into the highly limited, semi-specialised, coveted “Academies” (the former State Star Colleges) running classes from Form IV to Upper VI.

This again raises several issues relating to equity and access:

While some groundwork has been laid with the pilot Form III assessments of 2013-2015, there is as yet no concrete information about the examinable subject matters and their weightage; there could be anywhere between 6 to 12 subjects at Form III.

Competition and private tuition for Form III exam to gain access to very limited-seat public Academies (about 1200-1500 seats) could reach ferocious proportions. The number of subjects and the immediacy of Form III exams shortly after the selection exercise at PSAC, is ominous for parents, children and concerned educators. It undoubtedly signals a new bonanza for the private tuition industry.

Those students who have applied for and secured access to one of the Private/Confessional Star Colleges will in all likelihood NOT sit for those exams; nor may their establishments waste precious time, resources and energies preparing them to that end. Will the “National” exams in reality be a “public-sector” only examinations?

If many regional public school students do not feel equipped or interested to submit to that intense selective examination at Form III to gain access to the prized Academies, who will this “National” hurdle be meant for? It could end up being destined for the unlucky few whose privileged parents might be willing and able to finance years of preparatory tuition post PSAC, i.e. from Form I onwards.

III.    Private tuition and selection:

It can unfortunately be foreseen that private tuition will be prevalent in primary for PSAC and shortly thereafter, in the public sector ONLY, for those who, without any respite, and with even more subjects, will have to face the intense competition for a limited Academy seat.

The 2005 Reforms had ensured that every student in a Regional or National College (7200 of them every year) could have a fair chance of becoming a laureate or getting excellent grades for scholarships. With the Dookhun reform, laureates will only come from the Academies, the 1200 few, or from the network of Star Private/Confessional Colleges. A novel “rat race” will emerge where the public sector, rural areas, the financially underprivileged and the city outskirts could be at a tremendous disadvantage.

Public stream children will in effect have to face competitive selective exams every 2-3 years from Std IV to Form VI with all the associated private tuition and stress for children and parents. This is a frightening scenario where there is no room for “épanouissement” or even breathing years, except for the better Private/Confessional Colleges. This has severe implications for equity and personality development of our children.

Once the better students of the regional SSS have been “creamed off” to the coveted Academies, one can wonder whether educators, parents and remaining children in those SSS will face demotivational risks leading to aggravation of growing adolescent rowdiness and associated evils.

Many associations, educators, rectors and countless parents who are taking cognizance of the far-reaching implications of the Dookhun Reform for their children, their questions unanswered despite the glib and sweet presentations, now fear those gift-bearing Greeks and are prepared to demand straightforward answers.

Others, in near desperation, are preparing to send their children to Private/Confessional streams where they can expect to sail through their seven years of secondary schooling without changing schools and localities, without the pressures of Form III exams, without stress and unbearable tuition levels, and with far better chances for personality development and a satisfactory outcome at HSC level.

Concluding remarks

We have not bothered here with questions of staffing, logistics, budgets and MIE/MES/Ministry resources being tapped for the implementation of the Dookhun Reform. Resources and budgets may well appear as annoying side-issues to Education decision-makers, yet they are central to fathoming some idea about costs relative to expected benefits of the chosen NYS priority, while numerous other problems remain in abeyance.

A Reform that starts out with good intentions to reduce stress, reduce competition fuelled by private tuition, provide equitable learning opportunities for all, promote holistic development of all children looks curiously set to fail on each of these counts and will induce some far-reaching perverse effects on our education system.

Have the authorities stretched their neck too far out to limit the damages and consider with some urgency the growing calls for reforming the Reform?

*  Published in print edition on 1 April 2016

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