“we are throwing some Rs 6 billion down the drain every year

Interview: Dr Teeluck Bhuwanee, Educationist

when some 30% of students fail to reach the right level at both primary and secondary levels”

‘Not that we don’t know the problems: we do not have the political, social and professional courage to take the bull by its horns’

In light of the worrying performance of several of our secondary institutions revealed by the SC results, and a critical issue that has become a national concern – namely the number of credits required to join HSC classes – we have sought the views of Dr Teeluck Bhuwanee, educationist, on this as well as what and how we should go about bringing our educational system to the level required to propel the country forward. Teeluck Bhuwanee holds a PhD in Educational Management and has been a UNESCO Consultant, after having been the first Registrar of the UTM, Senior Lecturer at the MCA, Lecturer at the MIE and Rector in state secondary schools since 1975.

Mauritius Times: Despite the billions of rupees that we have been spending on Education and the numerous reports and reform initiatives down so many decades, it would seem that we have not been able to come up with an education system that will deliver results that are both qualitatively and quantitatively satisfactory and will meet our national aspirations and those of the youth. Why do we keep going round in circles?

Dr Teeluck Bhuwanee: Let’s try to analyse each dimension that is raised in your question: the economic dimension, the issue of quality and quantity, the purpose of education and its contribution to the socio-economic development of the country, etc. We have been spending over 15 billion rupees every year over the last 10 years and in the current budget year, I think some 18 billion have been earmarked for education. When some 30% of students fail to reach the right level at both primary and secondary levels, it looks like we are throwing some 6 billion rupees down the drain.

Yet year in year out, the diagnosis is the same: the three main issues that all education systems seek to address are access, equity and quality. Over the last 30 years, the focus has been primarily on increasing access to education. Though we succeeded in providing universal primary education to our children long ago, secondary and tertiary education continued to remain a problem. The mechanism to ensure access to secondary education was the rat race to good secondary schools that was ended with the NYS (9 year schooling) reform.

In an earlier interview three years ago I congratulated the present minister of education for having performed a political masterstroke but succeeded only in creating a real educational “gâchis”. She had a historic opportunity to change the educational scene of the country but only tweaked the system. There is a small structural change and the “12 secondary schools in greatest demand” will now admit those who get the best results at the Grade 9 exams.

Nothing fundamentally has changed with the reform: Primary School Achievement Certificate (PSAC) has replaced the Certificate of Primary Education (CPE), criteria for admitting students to schools have remained the same, namely parental choice, overall grading at the PSAC, proximity of residence to the secondary school. The four previous Education Zones are maintained. There was an opportunity to rationalise the regional education zones. I live in Beau Bassin and my zone ranges as far as Camp de Masque and Sebastopol. Is this regionalisation?

I maintain that education will not get better. Rather we are in for a catastrophic education scenario, already seen this year with the SC results that we know. When some 4000 students fail to get any credits at the SC examinations, there is something very wrong with the system. When only a third of the students taking SC examinations manage to get 5 credits, and are denied access to HSC, something is rotten somewhere.

At the primary level, with PSAC and later with National Certificate of Education (NCE), boys and girls will now not be admitted in the national colleges – the so-called “12 secondary schools in greatest demand”. You imagine what will happen to those students who fail the PSAC and yet are promoted to grade 7 and eventually to grade 9 when they will take the NCE examinations? Unless the level of the marking is drastically lowered, I cannot see how students who cannot even write their names well, who do not have basic literacy and numeracy skills reach a grade 9 level to go to an academy or a technical school.

Those who fail PSAC (CPE) have been automatically promoted to Grade 7, then G 8, then G 9 and drop out of the system (presently some 25% leave after finishing pre-voc), because the pressure to get admission to the “BEST” schools in the “region” is still on, there will be 2 examinations instead of 1 (PSAC and NCE) and private tuition will not disappear. Pressure to go to “better” schools (Academies) will increase.

In short, access remains an issue, quality has not been addressed at all and equity remains a dream when you see the SC results in some of the State Schools (not to mention the low level private schools): in Bambous SSS only 21% passed SC, 15.7% in La Gaulette SSS, 47.9% in Manilal Doctor SSS, 51.6% in Ramlallah SSS, 55.6% in Bel Air SSS, 55% in Camp de Masque State College. I have only listed the results in the first three pages listed on the MES website.

Three years ago, I had said that fundamentally nothing would change, and I give credit to the Minister who has honestly acknowledged, in an interview to Defi-Plus in January 2020, that “I have done an analysis on the evolution of the results for the last ten years. I have seen that it is always down or up by 1 or 2 percent. There is nothing different comparing the PSAC results to what was happening before. The only thing I believe is that we must change our way to view an assessment.” This is an acknowledgement of the failure of the reform.

* Our attention has lately been focussed on the plight of those students who for failure to obtain 5 Credits at SC level will not be allowed – rightly or wrongly — to move up to HSC classes. But that particular focus hides an even more worrying trend with the performance of Mauritian students in what are generally considered as the “easiest” subjects: only 36% have earned a Credit in Accounts, with 4000 obtaining zero Credit; similarly only 28.4% out of the 4600 students examined earned a Credit in Travel & Tourism. How will we move up the value chain with such exam results?

I will give other worrying figures shown in the grade distribution by subject at the SC results: in Business Studies, only 36.7% gained credits 1-6, in Economics only 42.9%, in English Language only 44.6%, in French only 45.7%, in Maths only 44.7%, etc. We are told that all the others who have failed to get the required 5 credits can have access to technical schools, to the Polytechnics, etc.

I have a lot of sympathy for the CEO of Polytechnics Mauritius, who has been sent on the front line of fire to defend the weaknesses of his colleagues in the academic sector and emphasise that many possibilities exist for students to study technical subjects. You can imagine when the Polytechnics admit only the “less good” SC holders, how the reputation of technical education will fare in the future. The poor guy has to show that Polytechnics are there for the weak, for those who failed, for those who have been rejected by the academic stream.

At a time when we badly need the best trained and skilled technicians who will manage the Metro Express, the Ocean Hub, Green Technology, and other major infrastructural developments in the country, those admitted to the technical schools will be those who fail to go to academies or the regional colleges. Technical Vocational Education and Training (TVET) and skills development are again seen as the last choice; therefore we will continue to be deficient in having well-trained technicians.

I am also not sure what the technical schools will be. Do they have the equipment that is required for the kind of curriculum that will be proposed, the kind of teachers/trainers that are required for these students?

The Minister has also announced that this year “we will come forward with a new legislation namely the ‘Institute for Technical Education’ (ITE). We will thus review everything related to technical education. We need to ensure that the student, who passes Grade 9 and opts for a technical training, receives a quality and holistic education”. ITE was introduced in 1992 in Singapore, some 28 years ago. Are we going to emulate what Singapore did so many years back? It is amazing how TVET is being handled in our country when it is the driving force in developed countries like South Korea, Germany and Singapore. It is not by pushing academically weak students into technical education that will help the country to make the quantum leap that we require to get out of the middle-income trap.

By the way, I am yet to see a document or paper that properly details the profile of what is an academy that will be proposed next year. What will the academy do? If I have to choose between my present regional school and the academy, where can I see what will be different from the present “senior state school”? On what basis will I choose an academy over a technical school? How will the academy curriculum, the pedagogy, the examinations, etc., be different? It looks like the task force that is working on the transformation of the 12 academies is looking at infrastructure, toilets and at “atmosphere, the governance and the autonomy of the school”. I would like to know how a task force makes changes to a school’s atmosphere. Do all our schools presently have any good governance structure? All these are questions to which we still have no answer show the amateurism with which our educational system is being engineered.

* Besides the Nordic countries, there are also places like Hong Kong, Singapore, China, which are doing much better than we do; some African countries are also said to be overtaking Mauritius in terms of educational outcomes. It would seem their education system has become part of the solution, where ours is part of the problem. What’s lacking here for us to do as well as these countries?

Unfortunately, our system suffers not only from an absence of vision but also a lack of conviction on the part of those driving the change, a total disregard of the dynamics of change. The change process requires a Vision and a Strategy, excellent communication of the change vision, generating Short-Term Wins and as you consolidate the gains you produce more Change, until you have anchored the New Approaches in the education culture.

The Mínistry of Education staff is more concerned with which child goes to which school and how admissions will be managed with least problems for the Ministry. They are bogged down with daily routine issues and do not have the planning expertise that will transform the vision of a better education into a reality.

This present change, unfortunately, is driven by the same people who marketed Kadress Pillay’s middle school concept, who helped Steven Obeegadoo bring about regionalization and later who helped Dharam Gokhool reverse all and eventually were selling Vasant Bunwaree’s views. The MES still sees learners as “candidates” expected to reproduce what is taught in class. The same MIE with the same lecturers who have trained thousands of school teachers will now train the same teachers in a “different” way!!! That is a joke.The mindset has not changed.

When I was at UNESCO, I was working on the provision of 9 years basic continuous education since 2007. I am happy to note an excerpt from my own UNESCO publication on the BEAP (Basic Education in Africa Programme) in the NYS publication. I am still supporting many African countries.

You cannot imagine the progress that Rwanda has made, in spite of the genocide that happened there. Tanzania, Uganda, the Gambia, etc., are so many other countries that are making huge educational progress, in spite of their major problems that we cannot dream of. That is because there is true commitment and real dedication to change, a clear vision of where to go and the search for resources to transform their education system.

All policy changes require evidence-based information drawn from research to justify new approaches. I have not seen the Mauritius Research Council or the research units of the MIE, the MES and the Education ministry or for that matter our national universities publish research papers, carry out public discussions on all the major issues affecting the education sector. In other countries, there are regular exchanges between researchers and practitioners. You would wish to have at least a monthly public event with the best brains of this country debating the major issues facing our educational system with all the education stakeholders.

Unfortunately, there is an uproar after each examination for 2-3 weeks. The mass media play their role, call upon a few resource persons to discuss the current issues at hand and after that it is business as usual. Not that we don’t know the problems: we do not have the political, social and professional courage to take the bull by its horns. We are always saying that reforms have been initiated, changes will take place and we will soon see the results. In the meantime, we are sacrificing whole cohorts and generations of students.

What do you tell the parent of any student who is repeating a class and who has to pay high tuition fees to enjoy the benefits of a free education that we are all paying for?

* It might be true that 4 Credits would not be a definite indicator of a student’s potential or lack thereof, but a benchmark has to be set up at some point just like 2 or 3 A-Levels are the minimum entry requirements for admission to most universities. Is it unfair in that case to impose the 5 Credits requirement upon students to move up to HSC classes?

I am sorry to see the amount of Bunwaree bashing these days. Not that I want to defend him or his policies or to take side with 3, 4 or 5 credits. If Bunwaree is to be judged, we need to look at the results of the HSC that came after the idea of 3 credits to join HSC was mooted. Evidence needs to be provided in terms of numbers, of quality of results, etc., whether the HSC results have suffered drastically as a result of the 3 credits decision.

Figures need to be provided to justify the criticism. Arguments cannot be based on perceptions alone. It is dishonest to blame ex-minister Bunwaree for so few students getting credits at SC and using such light-hearted arguments like students don’t make enough effort, they spend too much time on mobile phones, etc. Or that because of the 3 credits decision, students stopped making the required effort and that now with 5 credits imposition, they will work harder.

At all times, there were technological developments that distracted students from concentrating in their traditional studies, and progressive countries have always used these new technologies to support educational practices. In most parts of Africa now, and not to mention Europe and Nordic countries, mobile technology is used increasingly as an educational tool. There is a new classroom concept that requires a profound transformation of the role of the school, of the teacher, a transformed syllabus and related assessment mechanism.

I challenge all those who are blaming the students to be in their shoes, to sit in a secondary school classroom from 8:00 am to 2.30 pm, with traditional teachers who come and go, who follow an alienated curriculum and syllabus, who have to take exams that basically test memory on paper, etc., that does not cater for multiple intelligences – and then to pass judgements.

I still recall when I was studying in the USA in the 1980s a student filing a court case against his university as being responsible for his failure at exams. He won his case because he was able to prove that he alone is not responsible for his failure, that many other factors contributed (such as poor teaching, weak school management, inadequate student support, obsolete examination system, etc).

When this year, we are depriving some two-thirds from access to HSC, the only one who pays for it is the student and eventually the parents. Ministry officials, school staff, examining bodies, etc., continue to get their monthly salaries, the Minister will get his/her pension eventually after two terms. Nobody else bears the brunt. That is why it is business as usual, year in year out.

Is the present examination system that has been rejected even by the British the only way we can use to allow a student to get a job or deprive him/her of the possibility of benefiting from free education in this country that we all contribute for as taxpayers?

* If we go by the past and present trends, would you say it’s going to get worse across the board in the years ahead?

I cannot see anything getting better if we maintain our course as at present. If we want to bring any improvement, we need to take immediate action at all levels. I am sure international organisations (EU, AFD, DFID, UNESCO, IIEP, IBE) will gladly support our initiatives if we show we really mean business and want independent mentoring (like we had asked ADEA in the past).

It would be necessary for a proper, honest independent (even international) audit to analyse the consequences of the NYS in the first 3 grades started with the present reform that will identify the strengths and weaknesses of the present actions and activities being carried out. We also need independent evidence on the consequences of the automatic promotion from grade 6 to grade 9, especially those who have failed PSAC and of the enhanced learning programme.

Concurrently we need to carry out studies on the quality of SC and HSC results over the last 15 years (given that a cohort takes 13 years to complete a full course and add 2 years for possible repetitions) and ask statisticians to make projections and forecasts on the basis of findings of this study. We also need to look at our tertiary education sector with a visiting Professor and a team to consider where we are going at the tertiary level.

Unfortunately, we have tried to do much with far too much speed to consider the consequences of our policies.

* Do you have any concrete proposals for the betterment of the education system, given your wide experience and expertise? For instance, what do we do about the Cambridge SC and HSC examinations? Are they still relevant in today’s Mauritius?

I don’t think we can go back on this NYS change. This change can, however, translate into a real educational reform. It requires thinking out of the box. I am in favour of scrapping the present SC and HSC examinations. There are many international attempts to replace traditional syllabus, curricula and assessments methods. We need bold moves with all stakeholders to get away from the old Cambridge SC and HSC that will impact on the laureate system. There will be very strong resistance from elitist and upper middle class sectors.

We need a complete paradigm shift that will look at the whole system from kindergarten to post-secondary education, in a holistic manner, including what we replace the present laureates (state scholarships) with, what status we give to polytechnics, how universities will not produce “mediocre” graduates and how MIE will not produce “mediocre” teachers now that MIE has been gifted with the right to award degrees.

Rather than putting the cart before the horse, we should look at the exit profile of the students at all possible exit levels and design the curriculum to equip the students with appropriate skills accordingly. Classrooms and examinations must be more activity based with portfolios demonstrating skills and competences reached.

What is also needed is a full definition of the achievement of a range of relevant learning outcomes that would prepare all learners for life, for citizenship, for work and for continued learning, regardless of mode of provision.

We also need to consider the teaching profession as a special case and find ways and means of attracting the best and the brightest to staff our schools and other educational institutions, attention to learner support materials and ICT, the move towards diversified modes of provision, whole school improvement, issues of governance and management, the linkages with community and labour market, and inter-sectorial collaboration at national and local levels. The present SC and HSC models will not allow these to happen.

We must re-think the purpose of education (not just schooling) and reduce examination syllabus driven teaching and find alternative assessment methods. E.g. when IB (International Baccalaureate) mentions skills, it also lays out in detail how these skills will be gained (such as portfolios and assessment of these, not just examinations).

We need to develop a curriculum framework for basic and upper secondary education with appropriate assessment tools and methodology for monitoring learning, including remedial education strategies.

We have to redefine the role of parents in the school, not the traditional PTA, but a more active participation in building effective partnerships between parents, families and schools to support children’s learning leading to improved learning outcomes.

We must not leave out a whole section of the population that have special needs, children who have differentiated abilities, who have some comparative form of handicap (psychologically, physically, emotionally or mentally). These are also citizens of this country and need to be given due attention.

Ultimately, we need to re-think the role of schools in a rapidly changing technological environment. Schools should be reconceptualised as “learning organisations” that can react more quickly to changing external environments, embrace innovations in internal organisation, and ultimately improve student outcomes, not just factories that churn out students with such or such number of credits.

* We have reached this situation of so many students unable to get 50%. Is it a case of automatic promotion from form 1 to form 5, as PSAC from Grade 7 to Grade 9?

In a way you are right. The main reason of such failure is a total lack of monitoring at secondary level, even primary level. After the 1966 Coleman report in the USA that asked the question ‘do schools make a difference?’ and answered that ‘schools make little difference’, many school actions were initiated for schools to impact the lives of students, such as the School Effectiveness Movement, the School Improvement model, Total Quality Education movement. I am yet to see any such effort in our schools to review the effectiveness or lack of it in our schools.

In other countries, there are mechanisms in place that monitor the effectiveness of the head, of the teachers, of the teaching-learning process, of the curriculum design and delivery in schools, of the school support system, of the school’s infrastructure. In the UK, for example, we have the Ofsted. Ofsted is the office for standards in education, children’s services and skills. The objective is to inspect services providing education and skills for learners of all ages. They inspect and regulate services that care for children and young people and is a non-ministerial department. In Mauritius, we have no proper way of supporting weak students and their teachers to work with them.

* The question that arises then is who should decide what is best for Mauritius?

The simple answer is Mauritians themselves, who need to be consulted in the widest possible manner, as a result of large scale negotiation, understanding of the stakes and the interests of the stakeholders, but viewing it from the perspective of international trends and the local socio-economic factors in the country.

Communication is key, and Pillay did it when he went to each nook and corner of the country to explain his middle school concept. Parsuramen was able to create a consensus with the creation of a concerted stakeholders association that produced the Masterplan of the late 1980s.

I still believe that education transcends all political barriers and should be an opportunity to get all political sides (Obeegadoo, Bunwaree, Gokhool, Pillay, and Parsuramen) together and harness all the pedagogues (local and international experts), retired educationists, the private sector, industrialists and others in a real national movement that will create ownership and consensus on a broad level and that all governments will adhere to and ensure the continuity of the state, at least in the field of education.

* Published in print edition on 24 January 2020

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