Education Reform Update – Unbelievable recipe for accentuating structural inequity in favour of the better-off

With the start of second trimester this week, children and students are back to their schools.

It is the opportunity to restate what we feel about the program of reforms being engaged in the education sector. First, quite apart from the personal drive and commitment of the Minister and the highest political echelons of government to move the goal-posts forward, there are some undoubted pluses in the education reform plans, at least at the level of expressed intentions.

Remedial support

First, there is a determined expression of intent by the government to do away with the tragic failures after six years of primary schooling through a series of concerted measures. The ZEP, summer school and other support concepts must have been judged insufficiently effective and are scrapped. The new approach aims to provide remedial education and support within schools from the earliest primary ages to those who, for a variety of reasons, fail to thrive under the corset of academic teaching methods and environment.

While it signals a new thinking in education establishment, we cannot but hope that the new approach, untested in practice, will indeed yield better results. Admittedly, those children should benefit from more time, attention and effort but the resources required and the retooling of educators to that end remains hazy at this stage. We have little reason to doubt the dedication of countless educators and inspectors who are expected to play this crucial role, but whether they have the freedom, motivation, drive, skills and tools to mitigate the dispiriting 30% of “CPE failures” that have been a scar on our education landscape for too long, remains to be seen over the medium-term horizon. We have therefore to stay judgement on the revised approach to tackle the problems of “décrochage” and “échec scolaire”.

The TVET stream

Secondly, the pre-vocational experiments are being phased out and the technical and vocational education and training (TVET) stream is planned for upgrade and integration to provide a full-fledged “filière” catering for the country’s now and future skilled trade requirements. This development could and should have come earlier. The recent appointment of S. Munbodh, founding father of the Industrial and Vocational Training Board who spearheaded its more dynamic years, as special advisor for this aspect of the education reform, is welcome, although a number of uncertainties remains to be cleared.

There are real challenges on the plate: (i) giving its “lettre de noblesse” to TVET as a valuable education option in its own right; (ii) ensuring a resilient management structure that spans technical training centres, future polytechnics and, perhaps, the infrastructure and facilities of the MITD, and (iii) ensuring the coherence of strategy, ambitions and resources against set objectives.

However, this declared intent again disturbingly confronts an unexpected stumbling block. The decision to do away with “CPE failures” and replace the CPE by the Primary School Achievement Certificate (PSAC), intended to be a low-stress grading and streaming exercise guiding children towards technical or general education in Lower Secondary Schools, was a key element of the reform philosophy.

From what we gather, this has now been shelved and the PSAC, administered by the MES as a CPE exam, will remain, to all intents and purposes, a CPE, albeit without its A+ grade. Consequently, it would seem that the TVET stream will, from the start, act as a catching net for those who fail their grades at the new PSAC-CPE, which is undoubtedly a heavy shroud under which to labour towards dignified recognition of TVET as a valuable educational option per se.

Competitive nightmare

The other dismal consequence of the new examinable PSAC-CPE is that it will stay on as a major competitive selection exercise for access to regional secondary schools and the burden of school-books, cartables, private tuition at ages 11-12 does not look set to go away.

More worryingly, it will now be doubled by a second intensely competitive hurdle, a National Form III examination, which aims not only to sanction end of Nine-Year primary schooling but, more disturbingly for parents, will also act as a massive selection exercise for access to the prized so-called Academies.

The reform proposals, with the succession of selective hurdles and examinations at Std VI, Form III, Form V and ultimately A-levels, is a nightmare scenario for child development. The fact that all eleven National Schools will be prevented from Form I intake in January 2018, leaving a massive gap of 1200 to 1500 places in good public establishments, can only compound competitive pressures at PSAC.

Structural inequities

Most parents and educators have some reservations about the former CPE and the inconveniences and pressures for Regional and National colleges at a rather early age, although a lot had been achieved since 2000 to make such public or private college seats accessible around the island and considerably increase intake capacity.

But at least most of the concerned stakeholders knew the CPE was a single selection exercise, generally accepted to be on merit, after which schoolchildren could expect pretty much a healthy let off for a minimum of 3-4 years before their O-levels. An opportunity for socialisation, sports, cultural and general extra-curricular development at a critical phase of their educational career and life.

It requires no rocket scientist to gauge the dramatic impetus the combined PSAC and Form III examinations will provide to an already prevalent private tuition industry and its predictable irruption at ages and classes where it had previously no foothold. Access to the select, high-profile, limited capacity Academies which the Education establishment is proposing will now be hugely conditional on parental ability to continue forking out pretty hefty fees after Std VI for private tuition up to Form III, at the risk of battering their children into numbness.

The proposals constitute a rather unbelievable recipe for accentuating structural inequity in favour of the better-off and the wealthier segments of the population. Couple this with a proposed strict regionalisation for access to Form I in colleges and the inequity will extend to accentuating natural disparities between urban and rural facilities for children’s overall development with possible constitutional implications. More need not be said at this stage.

Neither private sector nor confessional colleges and their Authorities have any reason to partake in the new competitive examination at Form III and it is extremely doubtful whether government will legislate to make it mandatory for all school children. Are we heading to a situation where the new National Form III hurdle and its associated negative impacts, will end up being imposed only on the public sector stream? This could well institutionalise inequity at still another level, between the public and private sectors.

Many anxious parents are now legitimately wondering whether they should get their children admitted to a private or a confessional college, where, in all likelihood, they would be spared the dramas and traumas in store for them in the public sector. There are already rumours that following the reform announcements, a dozen or more new fee-paying establishments are rearing for authorisation to open their doors rapidly.

Nobody should welcome the build up of social angst and political controversies in educational reforms for our children. But we cannot help feeling that the “Nine-Year Schooling” mantra is hiding too many disturbing elements for comfort. Its central philosophy with regards to the general education stream is at complete variance with quality, equity and access and is set to create mayhem. Those aspects should be immediately frozen pending a fundamental rethink.

* Published in print edition on 22 April 2016

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