Education reform and budgetary horizon — The Real Priorities

The Ministry of Education in its current shape and form, holding a brief spanning from pre-primary to university levels, covering pre-vocational, vocational, technical and special needs education, supervising quality inspectorate, curriculum adaptation, examination processes, national research and consultancy policies, managing budgetary, financial, corporate governance and legislative issues, holding the can for regulatory institutions like PSSA, MQA and the TEC, responsible for the large number of parastatals falling under its purview, including the likes of MES, MIE, MITD, not to mention several universities and other publicly-funded tertiary institutions, is something of an organisational behemoth.

Even with the help, at IVTB House, of several Permanent Secretaries, Permanent Assistant Secretaries, numerous Directors, administrative cadres and advisors, collectively responsible for a large chunk of public funds, it has probably never been an easy Ministry to manage. But, like our famous sugar-cane crop, it benefits from operating on a fairly well-established cycle, with predictable year-starts, trimesters and year-endings which well-performing institutes and IVTB House should be able to steer from a relative comfort zone and address any hiccups during those regular educational processes.

That normally should leave authorities with enough leeway to address the tasks of improving the system where appropriate and necessary, in particular, making sure the teaching and learning environment, the class sizes, the working conditions of teaching personnel or the motivation of school heads and college rectors, the state of amenities, the availability of libraries and books, the organisation of co- and extra-curricular activities, the attention to pre-primary or special needs, the state of sports, leisure and arts equipment are continuously being upgraded. After all, the Minister, who has just led some advisors on a familiarisation trip to Singapore, should not have to recoil from taking any Singaporean visitor through the innards, toilets and canteen facilities of any of our primary schools.

Over and above these important incremental improvements, which, however unglamorous, can have lasting impacts on student and staff motivation, emerging problems that are a reflection of larger society trends can and should be addressed rapidly and effectively rather than through the occasional circular addressed to heads and rectors in the frontline, who seem baffled by the lack of support from IVTB House.

These problems have been variously raised by front-line administrators and they range from growing frequencies of rowdy and abusive behaviour, indiscipline, absenteeism, or, much worse, a disturbing trend of illicit substance infiltration in educational establishments. The latter has been reported as being dramatically on the rise, but none of these should be left to fester unless IVTB House has lost its bearings and sense of priorities.

It must be admitted that the Minister did not inherit a dysfunctional state when she moved into office 18 months ago. A network of National Colleges had restored quality seven-year establishments and a merit-based, unrestricted, national access that was generally working. Regional Colleges extending throughout the towns and villages, through the dedication of rectors, educators and parents, were increasingly recognised as establishments of merit, some even successfully delivering laureates at the end of secondary studies.

Collectively these establishments provided more than 7000 seats for Form I intake year in, year out, while population dynamics kept reducing the seat demand every year, lowering the competitive pressures at intake. The system inherited in 2014 was therefore a far cry from the situation in 2000, when competitive pressures at CPE-level were more intense.

True, there were issues in 2015 that needed corrective improvements rather than the proposals for a dramatic overhaul we are witnessing today. Cases in point are the failure of education establishment over decades to deal effectively with those children who fail to adapt to traditional classroom teaching and end up in virtual illiteracy and innumeracy after six years of studies; the rampant levels of private tuition; the attention to special needs and pre-primary schooling; the adaptation of curricula to include civic and citizenship values, amongst others.

At other levels, the University structures, regulation and functioning, while respecting academic autonomy, require some deft policy measures which, hopefully, the EU-funded team mission last year should have helped to identify. We cannot be content with the current state of affairs and, although a new Higher Education bill has been promised, it is still in the pipeline.

The national scientific research and creativity-support mechanisms seem to be bubbling into routine management of ‘parcellary’ measures rather than spearheading their integration into academic education, university life and national development. Re-organising the Technical and Vocational sector should benefit from the considerable experience gathered with the IVTB and the Education Ministry is fortunate to be able to call on international-level professionals like Roland Dubois and Suresh Munbodh to help plan the MITD, its thirteen training centres, the future polytechnics into a coherent and efficiently organised whole.

It was therefore with considerable surprise that most parents and educators watched IVTB House entangle itself into a time and resource-consuming radical redesign of the primary to secondary system, perhaps at the expense of all other considerations. All the more so as the predictable outcome of the Nine-Year Schooling (NYS) proposals seem to be: more selection, more exams, more stress, more competition, more private tuition, less good public school places at Form I, greater elitism for better-off parents to access future “Academies”, greater discrepancy between a harassed public sector and a smoother private sector…

Many aspects of the NYS Reform remain to be defined, including such tricky issues as gender mixity, strict regionalisation and the inevitable ranking it implies or the modalities of secure and reliable continuous assessments in a selective examination context. The fate of the highly selective “National” Form III examinations is foggy, aggravated by the predictable non-participation of BEC and private sector in proposed elitist Academies. The curtailment of access to the more fortunate and those already better off in the double competitive hurdle announced at Form I and Form III is disturbing. Even the measures to address the plight of children in difficulties have failed to get the much-needed consensus that should accompany any major reform.

Huge efforts, time and resources, we understand, have been and continue to be mobilised around Nine-Year Schooling in IVTB House committees or at the MIE, MES and PSSA levels. Meanwhile, many of the real priorities of an improved education system and its effective and efficient management have taken a back seat. Will the consultations around the upcoming budget provide the Ministry with the opportunity to clarify its intents and policies on NYS and on the wider front for which it holds mandate?

* Published in print edition on 8 July 2016

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