Unequal Educational Opportunity in Mauritius

Mauritius Times – 60 Years Ago

By Peter Ibbotson

In the House of Commons on July 16, Mrs Joyce Butler (Labour MP for Wood Green) asked what proportion of the total number of Indian children at school in Mauritius failed the Sixth Standard examination in the years 1954-57. The reply, given by Mr John Profumo, was that the information is not available; the lists of candidates give no indication of religion or race. Mrs Butler, who had been briefed by Mr Seetanah, Secretary of the Mauritius League (he lives at 54, Clarence Road, London No 22, in Mrs Butler’s constituency) pursued the matter in a supplementary question: she asked if the Colonial Secretary was aware “that a considerable number of Indian children fail this examination because of the great difficulty they have in mastering the French language?” She urged that the recommendation of the Ward Report be carried out that basic instruction should be in the children’s mother tongue, and that French be no longer compulsory in the examination.

Education in the 1950s

Mr Profumo said he had recently been in Mauritius, but “was not made aware of this difficulty in any way”. He did not believe that “there is any reason to think that the Indo-Mauritians are suffering more than other children.”

If Mr Profumo believes that, he will believe anything (including, no doubt, the optimistic figures relating to unemployment supplied by the Labour Department). Of course Indo-Mauritian children are at a disadvantage in the Standard Six examination. French is a compulsory subject in which the candidates have to get at least 33 per cent; and to the Indo-Mauritians it is a foreign language. So is English. Thus, an Indo-Mauritian child has to master two foreign languages in order to compete in the Six Standard examination. And for a child of 12, this is a difficult task. Much fairer as an examination requirement would be English compulsory for all, with a second examination in the candidate’s mother tongue. Some candidates would thus offer French, others Hindi, Urdu, Tamil, Telegu, Chinese, etc. The beneficial effect of having languages other than French, to non-French speaking children as a Sixth Standard examination subject, would be revealed in a raising of the standard of these other languages; and with a better basis in the primary school, more future teachers of Oriental languages would be forthcoming.

Indo-Mauritian children are at a disadvantage when it comes to entering a secondary school. The proportion of Indo-Mauritian children at secondary schools is lower than the proportion of children from the General Population. In 1954 (the latest year for which the annual report of the Education Department is available), there were 25,140 children from the General Population at Government, Aided and Unaided primary schools. From the Indo-Mauritian population, there were 47,757 children; nearly twice as many. But at the Government, Aided and Unaided secondary schools there were 6,276 pupils from the General Population as against only 5,453 from the Indo-Mauritian population. That is, with nearly twice as many children in the primary schools, the Indo-Mauritian population had only nine-tenths the number of children in the secondary schools. The figures show that, with 25,140 children in primary schools and 6,276 in secondary, the General Population sends one in four of its children to a secondary school. With 47,757 children in primary schools and only 5453 in secondary, the Indo-Mauritians have only one in nine of their children at secondary schools.

Why is this? I suggest it is because of the unequal facilities for education available for the children of the different communities. By and large, the General Population are urban dwellers; the Indo-Mauritians are, also by and large, village dwellers. Educational facilities are better in the towns than in the villages. When it comes to the secondary schools, entrance scholarship examination, the big schools in the towns organise special scholarship classes; urban children have an immediate advantage over their less fortunate rural brethren who cannot go to a scholarship class which does not exist in their village school.

The standard of the French paper in the primary schools scholarship examination is too high for a 12-year-old who has had to learn French as a foreign language (as the Indo-Mauritian children have). Its standard is very little below that of the G.C.E. ordinary level, in fact. The French paper should be abolished as a compulsory subject, and the candidate should be examined in his or her mother tongue. That way, the Indo-Mauritians and the General Population would be on an equal footing as regards their language examination: each would be examined in a mother tongue and a foreign language (for English is a foreign language to Indo-Mauritians, Franco-Mauritians and Coloureds). Mr Profumo, in denying that there is any educational disadvantage for the Indo-Mauritian children, is talking out of the back of his neck.

And why is the information that Mrs Butler asked for not available? The Education Department knows, and publishes annually the number of children according to race in the various types of school; it can, when collecting from head teachers the figures on which the statistics are based, also collect the number of children in each form or standard according to race. And it would be no great matter to collect the racial distribution of candidates and successes by race; just as it would be no great difficulty to collect (and publish in the annual report) figures showing the numbers entering the Government, Aided and Unaided secondary schools each year, divided according to race. By the way, does not the Attendance Register show the religion of each child? Another batch of figures that the Department should publish relates to the number of scholarship winners (also divided according to race) entering each secondary school each year. Or, if it would be too much trouble to give each secondary school separately, then an overall figure showing the total number of scholarship winners divided according to race should be included in the annual report.

In 1955, the primary school enrolment of the children of primary school age was 67 per cent. That is, for every 67 children enrolled at primary school, there were 33 not enrolled. Out of the 33 per cent not enrolled, how many were from the Indo-Mauritian section of the population? And how many were from the other groups? An answer to these questions would show the disparity in the educational facilities available to the Indo-Mauritians and others. So would details of secondary school scholarship winners divided according to race. In education, as in almost everything else in Mauritius, a small minority takes the plums and the Coloured and Indo-Mauritian proletariat is left with the droppings.

Much more light needs to be shed on the activities of the Education Department; much more detail ought to be available about the facilities actually provided for the children of the various ethnic groups. I hope the Minister of Education will see that his Department is more forthcoming than it has been under Crown Colony regime. The apologists for the Department will probably say that there is so much work to do that additional work would throw the Department even more in arrears. To that I point out that the Deputy Director of Education ought to give his full-time attention to his Department; if he were not every now and then being diverted to be a PRO to some or other VIP, or to act as liaison officer to a visiting commission of experts, the Department might function more efficiently. There is nothing against Mr Ardill personally; it is merely that he should devote all his time to the job to which he was appointed.

There is another aspect of education to which the Education Minister should give his attention. Since the number of pupils eager to have secondary education is always higher than the number of places available in Government, Aided and Unaided schools, many go to private secondary schools and colleges. Some of these are of good standing and standard; but others are shams, mere pretences. Parents make great sacrifices to pay the fees for their children to attend these schools, with the hope that the child will get a School Certificate, or G.C.E., with the five passes necessary to get a Government job. But what happens? Too often, all the pupil has to show at the end of his private secondary school career is a G.G.E. in French only.

Look at last year’s G.C.E. results.

At Curepipe, 123 candidates passed the G.C.E., getting 221 passes between them. 61, nearly half, passed in French only; 103 altogether passed in French. Only 4 had five or more passes, and only three of these had the necessary five for Government employment.

At Port Louis, 139 candidates totalled 228 passes. 116 of the 139 had passes in French, and of these 70 passed in French only. Only one candidate had five passes or more; the five necessary for a Government job.

At Rose Hill, 91 successful candidates totalled 138 passes; 70 of the 91 passed in French, and 45 of these 70 passed in French only. One candidate at Rose Hill had five or more passes, but they were not the five needed to qualify him for a Government post.

Thus out of 353 candidates who passed the G.C.E. in any subject, 176 (or half) passed in French only. A further 113 passed in French and at least one other subject. And between them, the 353 candidates totalled only 587 passes.

These figures of success in the G.C.E. do not inspire confidence in the private secondary schools, for it is their students who sat for the G.C.E. under analysis. Yet many of these students would, given proper education in a proper school, have achieved better results than this. Something must be done, and done quickly, to extend the availability of secondary education in Government and Aided schools, and to enquire into the standards of the private secondary schools.

4th Year – No 156 — Friday 2 August 1957


* Published in print edition on 19 January 2020

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