The UK government has periodically engaged in topical or wider-import reviews of its education system, focusing at times on the primary education, the Technical & Vocational streams or the Higher Education and University framework.
The underlying rationale for change can stem from a mix of reasons: the effective and efficient use of public funds and resources; the advent and impact of globalisation or of internet and ICT-based technologies; the increase in social and cultural diversity in Britain; the growing attention to social dislocation and the needs of economically disadvantaged groups; the problems of handling school dropouts and failures; the matching of knowledge and skills with future employability or the preparation of adolescents and school-leavers to integrate society as responsible citizens imbued with a sense of democratic and humanistic values.
The UK system has the particularity of being largely steeped in a tradition which considers that the general, though not explicitly stated, objectives of primary schools are to make children “secondary-ready” and that the objectives of secondary schooling consist in preparing and sifting the minority that have the aptitudes to migrate onto University education and constitute the country’s future administrative and managerial elites. A formidable substratum from the days of imperial expansion, boasting a legacy of some fine institutions, it has nevertheless to adapt to changed environments and newer society demands.
What concerns us here is the mechanism and process of undertaking politically promised changes as exemplified in the Higher Education domain, following a general manifesto pledge for a new Teaching Excellence Framework applicable in England.
(i) A documented Green Paper was issued in early November 2015 setting out in detail the major issues being addressed, the underlying statistical data and trends, the government policy options and their priorities, the time horizons for implementing change and such other matters that could be relevant to informed input by all parties concerned with or having an interest in UK Higher Education, thus initiating a wide consultation process over a period of three months. To facilitate the largest possible response, a structured series of specific questions under 25 general headings was included and mechanisms to guarantee confidentiality, if so requested.
(ii) At the close of the consultation process on 15th January 2016, all contributions were analysed and consolidated into a UK Government White Paper issued in May 2016, summarising the important consultative inputs and outlining government’s adjusted policy proposals regarding the key focus areas of change, the new structures, regulatory or otherwise, and the legislative amendments that it intends to get through parliament.
Political parties and some segments of the population may still raise issues or nurture dissatisfaction with the adopted approaches or the imbedded philosophy, but nobody can remotely claim that due, appropriate and wide-ranging consultation was not undertaken or that a limited cohort of bureaucrats, advisors or technocrats from a parent Ministry had hijacked or was imposing politically-condoned views on the larger society, particularly for reforms of such magnitude or significance for the future of higher education in England.
(iii) Managing change: It is extremely doubtful that the three to six months it may have required an incoming UK government to prepare the Nov 2015 Green Paper, or the three months consultation process or the further three months required to issue Government’s formal position in the May 2016 White Paper announcing its legislative proposals and a calendar of implementation, would be considered as unnecessary time wastage in the process of major reform in the education sector. Of all government departments, surely the Education one is the least likely to be accused of conceptual or analytical insufficiencies in producing, at relatively short notice, a guiding Policy document of substance.
On the typical time-frames of education matters and in the process of getting acceptance for major changes, one may consider that the one-year consultative and opinion preparation period is a determinant upstream investment. In actual fact the UK consultation process did indeed raise several specific issues, constraints and suggestions which were taken on board in the resulting White Paper defining in clear terms the upcoming organic changes and the time-frame for their implementation.
Parents, educators, trade unions, social agents, political parties and concerned parties, even if they don’t buy in all the changes, have had their say and government, whatever its political manifesto pledges, can have its way. In more professionally and effectively managed circumstances. In some situations, the Green Paper stage can be skipped, the White Paper embodying both the consultation and policy outline proposals in a single document for informed public response. But, importantly, at the end of the day, everybody, including parents, students, rectors and unions have a clear set of informative reference documents and the equivalent of a Master-plan for smoother change implementation.
(iv) Lessons for Mauritius. The Nine-Year Schooling project, independently of its pedagogical merits, may well become a case-study in educational change management. We can be surprised so little use is made of White Papers by the Mauritian body politic in general but even more so, when major changes are envisaged to a complex local education setup involving public sector, private authorities, parents, educators and unions. Upfront public consultations would also no doubt benefit government’s proposed future reforms to the country’s Higher Education system.
By short-circuiting an adequate consultation process that would have only marginally affected reform implementation time-frames, IVTB House advisors and counsellors have put the cart before the horses, landing all concerned parties and the general population with an imposed plan that is struggling on many fronts to elicit consensus. It is of course late for IVTB House to bemoan or regret that it didn’t feel that the major proposed upheavals of Nine-Year Schooling were important enough to deserve public scrutiny, cautionary advice and concrete suggestions where and when it mattered.
In such a vast-ranging set of measures captioned under that Nine-Year Schooling framework, substantiated by the Minister’s own “tout est à refaire!” statement, there are quite possibly elements to be lauded, but they are being drowned out by the more objectionable conceptual aspects or the continuous improvisations to implementation plans. Even if the Minister surely didn’t mean that all her predecessors’ contributions or the decades of achievements embodied in our public National or Regional Secondary Colleges, were to be tossed aside, the population should be entitled to more and better justification of the imposed changes.
One can sympathise with anguished parents who are still awaiting concrete answers, or with past Ministers like Steven Obeegadoo, Dharam Gokhool or Armoogum Parsooramen, who have either lambasted the proposals or condemned the lack of visibility that a Master-Plan would afford. Others may sympathise with unionists like Vinod Seegum (GTU) who has condemned the “guinea-pig experimentation” of Nine-Year Schooling or with the comprehensively argumented rejection by BEC unionist Lysie Ribot. Many will even concur with BEC director Gilberte Cheung’s exasperation that education reform, left to political incomers, may roll-back stable education systems or advances made by predecessors for politically motivated goals.
Some measures of NYS are already behind the door: for instance, the national Standard V assessments, to be integrated into the PSAC grades, have to be conducted this year-end. Stressed parents have to make smart calculations for their kid’s future enrolment these days, now that the National Colleges will be prevented from Form I recruitment. Others are starting to save up for the upcoming double examination and selection exercises at Std VI and Form III and the forecast for huge extra private tuition costs.
The Minister promised two months ago an imminent “aggressive” communication campaign around the countryside to explain the features, desirability and implementation modalities of Nine-Year Schooling. Now that the budget exercise is over, it should not be delayed further, as it might at least appease, if not actually seduce, parents and educators.