The Nine-Year Schooling Education Reform

By forging ahead breezily with NYS, the Ministry was fully cognizant of the socially and politically disruptive risks on a question that called for consensus and a non-partisan approach

The recent declaration of Navin Ramgoolam at the Labour Party’s ‘congrès’ in Triolet that the LP would scrap Nine-Year Schooling upon its return to office should give authorities cause to pause and reconsider the pedagogical, social and political aspects of the scheme.

The LP also issued a press communique giving substance to its condemnation of the NYS. It added another important voice to the rising clamour that authorities pay heed to the legitimate concerns concerning NYS. It came in a particularly volatile Education context fuelled by the Ministry’s own unexplainably managed and communicated policies.

a) We need not go over the conundrum of contradictory MES & Ministry circulars about SC & HSC fees, so poorly linked to absenteeism even after 18 months, that it threw angered students and parents on the streets, disrupting preparation for important end-of-year examinations.

b) A fullsome Atelier de Travail was held in early September by some ten trade unions in the Education sector, which was followed, according to a press conference of delegated union representatives, by the submission of a detailed Memo to the PM, the Education Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. It is understood the Memo may be highlighting the various reasons why the NYS Reform was ill-conceived, fraught with considerable implementation difficulties and surrounded by numerous unanswered questions only a few weeks away from primary Std V examinations, whose markings may count towards the new Primary School Achievement Certificate – PSAC (ex-Certificate of Primary Education, CPE) selection exam.

Those unions were of the view that the controversial NYS should be played out on a pilot basis and all the uncertainties and grey areas cleared before wholesale implementation of such an educational upheaval, whose merits over our UK-inspired system remain uncertain.

c) Mauritius Times readers do not need reminding that Mrs Gilberte Cheung, the Director of the Catholic Education Authority, an important player in the field of secondary education, has made public for several weeks now the Authority’s refusal to participate in the NYS Reform through the conversion of any of its full seven-year secondary institutions into Form IV to Form VI-only colleges, the so-called «Academies» whose access would be restricted to those successfully competing in the new highly selective National Form III examinations.

Mrs Cheung, director of the Bureau de l’Éducation Catholique (BEC) recently stated that, as matters stand with the NYS Reform, anguished parents, having realised that the harassment and stress of a double competitive examination would apply ONLY to the public sector, are rushing to find suitable private education providers, adding that the BEC is gearing up for an «explosion of demand» for the limited seats in the Catholic Authority’s thirteen colleges.

d) We cannot overlook either that most if not all previous Ministers of Education and all major Opposition political parties, including the MMM through Steven Obeegadoo and the MP of Alan Ganoo, have also condoned the desirability of reform but made clear their condemnation of the Ministry’s NYS scheme globally or in parts: its insufficiently justified base document, its conceptual flaws, its autocratic imposition or the uncertainties about its still fuzzy implementation modalities. They have also condemned the fact that legislative measures giving force to NYS and the amendments to the PSSA Act have been piggy-backed onto Pravind Jugnauth’s Finance Bill, preventing a full Parliamentary and public debate.

This in itself has raised numerous legitimate questions, namely whether

(i) politicians should at all be involved in guiding or imposing wholesale changes in our complex but well tried and tested educational set-up;

(ii) the Minister and the government as a whole should not have sought the widest social and political consensus before finalising its reform plans, so as to avoid as in 2005, a major reversal;

(iii) enormous time, efforts and resources are being consumed in NYS at all levels (Ministry, MES, MIE,…) that could and should have been put to more profitable use in normal and smooth educational management activities and their continuous improvement;

 (iv) the concerns of countless parents, educators, concerned unions and analysts should continue to be summarily brushed aside, and

(v) whether it would not be to the Ministry’s credit, even at this late hour, to grant itself and its affiliate institutions, parents, educators and the country a breathing time as it gets its bearings right, seeking the wisdom of consensus rather than the short-sighted gains of autocratic and hasty imposition of a controversial reform.

Minister Dookhun believes and argues cogently that «tout est à refaire!». Educators, parents and observers may only wish to be convinced that all our traditional education organisation, so UK inspired, so tried and tested, that our best public colleges, that the politico-social struggles for greater opportunities for quality public education while striving for less failures, that the patiently built-up legacy of previous generations, needs to be thrown overboard rather than adjusted and improved upon. If so, let it be on the basis of sound data, trend analysis, forecasts, taking account of pedagogical and technological evolutions, integrated into an articulated Policy document, backed by a solidly worked out Implementation Plan.

The other quid pro quo underlying the Minister’s Reform is that Paul must be disrobed to dress up Peter. In other words, that State Star Colleges must be dismantled in order to reduce competitive pressures or to improve the performances of those struggling, for a variety of reasons, with school constraints and methodologies. Many educators may not agree with the tenet and alternatives are not fathomed out. All the more as natural population dynamics has been reducing competitive pressures for Form I every year. Automatic push-over of under-performing kids at CPE and their distribution onto colleges are not clear either. Such implementation is bound to have an enormous social, economic, and political impact.

There may well be some positive points in such a wide-ranging reform and, no doubt, some features that can satisfy specific personnel categories. Unfortunately they are being overshadowed by the controversial elements and the work improvement features could have been brought in other ways. We have not been treated yet with the comprehensive communication campaign, including detailed brochures and other documents of substance, which the Minister promised.

In view of the controversies, it might be useful here to highlight some of the pedagogical points at issue and the social implications of the Reform. It might help the Ministry provide concrete answers in the much-awaited communication exercise.

a) All main State National Colleges, including the likes of Royal Colleges, the MGI, the QEC, Maurice Cure, the JKC, etc., will stop admitting Form I students from January 2018. That’s a deficit of 1500 best public-sector seats for which no equivalent alternatives will be offered.

b) Strict regionalisation for access to Form I in the remaining Regional Colleges transfers competition at national level to regional levels and, as in 2002, is a troubling factor liable to distort equity. Its implementation is fraught with difficulties and may end up bringing ranking by the back door.

c) The introduction of another highly competitive examination at Form III for public sector children will transform their educational life and experience into a harrowing exam-led «rat race» from Std V up to HSC. It may, in practice, marginalise the proposed « holistic education » activities which would be conducted in school hours.

d) Competition in the public sector for the 1500 coveted Academy seats will be ferocious and imply a rampant private tuition industry thriving at years (Forms I-IV) where it now has no legitimacy, allowing children a respite after the CPE. Once the better Form IV elements have migrated onto Academies we feel sorry for educators and children left to struggle on in depressed second-grade regional colleges.

e) The restricted elite who will have access to the Ministry’s Academies will in all likelihood come from families with the means for such widespread private tuition over several years, a thorough skewing of the Reform towards the better off.

f) The fact that private sector and confessional colleges will retain their Star colleges without the undue stress of private tuition or National Form III exams, will inevitably result in a two-speed system that will be disturbingly biased against public school students, against those less privileged and against those constrained by virtue of their residence.

Many more questions and uncertainties like mixity, grading or continuous assessment have not been detailed here. But perhaps enough has been said to give an indication of the pedagogical difficulties and the social implications of the Ministry’s Reform.

Attention has been repeatedly drawn to these in several contributions in the columns of the Mauritius Times since last year and by authorised voices in the pedagogical arena.

We can’t all agree on everything and no system is perfect, but, by forging ahead breezily with NYS, the Ministry was fully cognizant of the socially and politically disruptive risks on a question that called for consensus and a non-partisan approach. Without a major revision of the NYS Reform, the calls for its scrapping were inevitable and look fully justified.

U.C.

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