Education Reform : The unanswered questions

The Nine Year Schooling (NYS) umbrella concept regroups several individual measures, which are intended collectively to reduce examination pressures, reduce stress and workload, reduce private tuition, provide more and better opportunities for our children to gain a quality education in a more conducive atmosphere.

Undoubtedly, a major rethinking exercise has been going on which has now taken shape in the NYS formula being proposed.While we may feel that there are most probably other and more effective ways to achieve those same objectives, we certainly cannot claim to have the pedagogical expertise of the Education establishment. It must be restated here that nobody would question the desire or the legitimacy of government to introduce a somewhat ambitious-sounding Education Reform Plan, if it is satisfied that the optimum framework has been carefully thought out and its various implications assessed. When the Minister announced a major reform based on NYS, we were among those who lauded the courage, determination and sincerity of declared intent although, we were bold enough then to suggest that there could be major snags in the proposals that needed the urgent attention of the Education establishment and its advisors, lest they raise confusion in the public regarding either the implementation or the consequences of the reform plan.

Some of these are now, all too predictably, causing a growing stir in the population most concerned, the thousands of children and their anxious parents who, failing to receive adequate answers, are at a loss about their fate as from next year. As they turn for advice, many educators are themselves rather befuddled about specifics. For other observers, the Power Point brochure distributed by the Ministry six months ago is of little help as it contains neither explicit objectives, nor statistical background and trends, nor even a serious documentation regarding many key recommendations which are raising adrenaline levels of anguished parents today. Some of the important measures contained in the brochure have in fact been quietly shelved or dismissed, adding to the confusion of parents, rectors and educators.

Nobody wishes the return of contentious wranglings, social anxieties or political controversies in a dispassionate, non-partisan look at the proposed education reforms and their implications. In any ambitious reform, there is always scope to promise satisfaction of corporatist and sectoral interests of teachers and their trade union representatives, often currying favour or attention. Important stakeholders they most certainly are, but clearly the primary concerned constituency are parents and children as they fret over the hazy contours of the promised land.

And, despite the numerous consultations have indeed been undertaken over the past year, it would appear that there are still some legitimate questions, doubts and concerns of parents that have not yet been quelled. It is an admittedly complex and large-scope reform project and there has been, no doubt, considerable background work to fine-tune it. The Minister has on air, in a phone-in to a private radio station, promised participation in a contradictory exchange with the doubters. This is most welcome provided it remains a civilised debate resisting political point-scoring to focus on the proposed contours for tomorrow. That should go a long way to attenuating current parental fears and anxieties.

We can only wish, for the sake of children and parents, for the sake of necessary political consensus, for the sake of social quiescence in the country, that the opportunity is not wasted and that concerns of parents, concerned educators, rectors and independent observers, however awkward, are answered. One of those concerns which we may raise here, concerns strict regionalisation at Primary School Achievement Certificate (PSAC) to gain entry to the Lower Secondary School (LSS) that will themselves serve to prepare children for their second important selective examination hurdle, the National Form III examinations.

Strict regionalisation

It may sound strange from an external viewpoint or for those unfamiliar with concrete Mauritian realities, that regionalisation could be cause for concern in such a small island. Yet it matters and the reform proposals could have a worrying impact on equity between rural and urbanised children.

Children living, studying and playing in Grand Gaube, Baie du Cap, Souillac or Quatre-Soeurs cannot, even in the remotest way, be considered to have the same level of access as their urban counterparts to public libraries, museums, cultural events or sports facilities so essential in their overall development.

Having survived the PSAC competition, they will most likely have to travel for hours each day as opposed to those in urban areas, living at most within 15 mins reach of their LSS college. Were their parents in a position to afford it, they will barely have time or energies to devote to private tuition, if they have to travel from Quatre-Soeurs to Mahebourg or from Laventure to Flacq.

While regionalisation up to CPE could have a modicum of justification, the proposal to extend it throughout the nine years of primary and LSS schools, whatever the merits and talents of children in rural areas, raises issues of Equal Opportunities which should not be lightly dismissed. If equity can be somewhat assumed between the four education regions, can the same be said within any one of them?

Should authorities be seen to accentuate “natural” urban/rural disparities by forcing children whose only “misfortune” is to be born in rural areas, to remain confined in the same local environment for their first nine years of studies, spanning two competitive examinations, the second of which (National Form III exams) will condition their future lives and careers?

Once admitted through PSAC to their nearest college and facing the mountainous challenge to beat all odds to gain access, through the National Form III exams, to the limited access “Academies”, are the rural children being in effect condemned to their local horizons and outlooks from Std 1 to Upper VI? The proposals reveal a level of “urban bias” that suggests some hard and legitimate questions about strict regionalisation require answers.

It is still time for a dispassionate constructive review of some measures that are pregnant with unpalatable implications and that can only add to the confusion of parents and those concerned with the better picture of society we would all like to emerge from the process of education reform.

* Published in print edition on 13 May 2016

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