Education Reform: Bite less, chew more plz

One recent announcement grants us the opportunity to wander (again…) into the territories of the Education establishment at IVTB House and their proposed plans for a major redesign of our primary to secondary transition, in the global construct known as Nine-Year Schooling (NYS).

It concerns the long-awaited position announced by Gilberte Cheung, the BEC director, regarding the National Form III exams, the elitist “Academies” and the proposed education reform plans of the Ministry. Coming on the heels of the BEC staff and pedagogic condemnation of many aspects of the NYS Reform Plan, most cogently summarised by Lysie Ribot in a preceding Week-End interview, the BEC “prise de position” was inevitable and only a matter of time.

In effect, and as suspected, the BEC does not propose to convert any of its seventeen secondary colleges, many of which are deemed by parents and IVTB House itself, and rightly so, to constitute “star” or high-demand full seven-year establishments, into four-year semi-specialised Academies. This decision will have ripple effects onto the whole of the private sector, collectively responsible for more than two-thirds of secondary school places.

In any case, it was never very clear why private establishments having their own students, recruited mostly by their own criteria, tutored into their own student development philosophy and boasting their own elite track records, would encourage their children onto the undefined vagaries of future Academies through “National” Form III examinations.

Although the BEC Director does not quite close the door on opening an Academy if prodded or financially assisted, one assumes, by the Ministry or government to that end, this development adds another serious additional cautionary note to the wisdom of IVTB House in their Reform deployment plans, a flag, amongst several others, that had been raised almost a year ago in this same newspaper column. To all intents and purposes, that and other cautionary flags raised then were unfortunately disregarded as the Establishment laboured on with their NYS Reform Plan, creating a considerable predictable level of anxiousness in all quarters of civil society.

Revamped CPE examination

Unless government is prepared to legiferate otherwise, a natural consequence of the BEC announcement will be to absolve all private education stream students from the ominous fate awaiting public-stream students who, after a highly competitive revamped CPE examination (called PSAC), will have to devote enormous energies and, one can surely add, their parents considerable tuition fees over several years, to cross the second competitive hurdle thrown across their unfortunate paths, the National Form III examinations. The latter are destined to control access to the proposed elite chambers of public “Academia” in Form IV, some 1200 to 1500 places in all. Semi-specialised or not, these will be the fer-de-lance, the cherry on the cake, the laureate manufacturers of the elitist streaming pregnant in the NYS philosophy in its current guise.

Implicit in the very concept of “Academies”, access to the coveted upper tier of the new Education pyramid in secondary schools, will now be through a double ferociously competitive examination, one at age 10-11, a second one hard on its heels three years later. All rectors, pedagogues and observers have been profoundly disturbed at the prospect of:

(a) the increase in competition for Form I access through diminished good public seats,

(b) an unlimited rampant private tuition industry from Standard V to Upper VI in schools and colleges, and

(c) the immense restriction of access to quality education in “Academies” to those parents who have the economic resources to finance the stress-strewn path of their progeny.

Nobody even remotely believes that an exam-laden student life can conceivably lead to holistic development, the sharing of values or the discovery of extra-curricular activities like performing arts, music, culture and sports.

However, all seemingly is not forlorn or lost, since at least BEC and fee-paying private colleges will in all likelihood be spared such miseries! The NYS could even be considered as an indirect inducement for concerned parents to rush their talented children off for admission to BEC and other private colleges and might tally with a privatisation philosophy hinging on curtailment of public institutions of some excellence.

It will be a hard sell to convince observers and outside pedagogues that an Education establishment and advisors that have caroused along with every shape of reform, from the Middle Schools of former Minister Pillay, through the Obeegadoo restructuring plan, onto the Gokhool and Bunwaree years without batting so much as an eyelid, do indeed have a clear, consistent and coherent view of how best the public and national primary and secondary education years should be structured to achieve quality, equity and meritocratic widespread access, while improving conditions, reducing competition and doing away with the entrenched problems of “échec scolaire”.

Dismantling the Royal Colleges, QECs, MGIs

From a political stand-point, it is indeed curious that for the second time since 2000, an MSM-led government, this time around without any external or pedagogic pressures, is leading the charge to dismantle the Royal Colleges, QECs, MGIs, John Kennedy, Maurice Cure and other high-demand public colleges while leaving the private sector free to run and operate its own range of successful colleges. Even MSM sympathisers may not feel comfortable at what looks like a consistent attempt at selective deconstruction and question the underlying agenda.

Many other points remain yet to be clarified by IVTB House, and they have been flagged but disregarded before, at the cost of rising anxiety by parents, educators and civil society. We will not go over them again as most have been amply canvassed over the past year. Where we will undoubtedly concur with Education House and the Ministry is that the unfortunate plight of children who more or less rapidly find themselves in “décrochage scolaire”, leading ultimately to the 25-30% CPE-failure rates after six years of schooling had to be addressed.

Whether the formula being presented by IVTB House, through their automatic roll-over onto Lower Secondary Schools and extra support from early ages, is the best remains to be seen in practice but we should not grudge the authorities’ desire or wish to address this issue effectively, since a variety of past measures have failed to impact the problem. In this sense the Ministry’s delegation to Singapore this week to familiarise themselves with and to share thoughts over “the development of vocational and technical education in Singapore, how Singapore is working with the industry to train human capital and how the private sector is involved in the curriculum design and the creation of programs” can only be most welcome if it clarifies matters in that respect at IVTB House.

However, there are no legitimate or justified grounds on which this specific and rather important issue should have been lumped with the reforms proposed for the general stream of students and the rather obnoxious results that stem from such linkage in the NYS. Improving the one does not necessarily mean the other should be dispossessed or aggrieved. By engaging into a radical reform that looks far too broad and encompassing too many dimensions, IVTB House may have bitten off more than it (or concerned parents for that matter) can chew.

Echec scolaire

It would be wise to freeze or postpone the fractious elements of the NYS formula, concentrating on implementing those pertaining to the phenomena of “décrochage” and “échec scolaire”, a grand task on its own merits, without alienating equity and quality of public general education access nor entrenching a two-speed system in the country between public and private sectors. As of now, the objectives of less stress, less exam orientation, less competition, less private tuition and greater personality development or enjoyable child school experience are far from being achieved.

Many would argue that the numerous problems on the rise in secondary and even primary schools, the state of amenities, the classroom sizes and operations, the work conditions of teaching staff and numerous matters regarding exams, absenteeism, indiscipline, manuels scolaires, inspectorate, etc., rather than the theoretical constructs of NYS should have been the main priority of the Ministry. Many will agree with Gilberte Cheung that, as a country, we cannot afford every new government to “détricoter” what has been achieved by previous incumbents, unless one is pretty sure the proposed new contours are justified and that they would gather political, social and parental consensus. Such a consensus is far from achieved.

* Published in print edition on 1 July 2016

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