For a nation that aspires to be a knowledge hub, we are in deep trouble

National Basic Education Statistics 2010-19 – The Decade in Review

A whole decade of continuous decline cannot be a matter of pride for the nation. Is this decline ever going to stop?

By Paramanand Soobarah

The SC-2019 results have been out for some time and have already been the subject of widespread and heartbreaking comments, but I do still have a few things to say. My basic purpose is to provide the data to a discerning public and let them come to their own conclusions.

The schools in the MES’s lists of SC results are all either run by the government, or are largely subsidised by it, all with taxpayers money. Parents are certainly interested to know how their own children have been doing. But they and the public in general are all profoundly interested in knowing how the country as a whole is doing, how effectively all that money is being spent, and how well or otherwise our schools are preparing the next generation of adults who will running the country in their various capacities.

Under the present system of displaying results on MES website, the public is kept totally in the dark about the number of pupils who have scored credits in English and in four other subjects in each school. This is absolutely intolerable. I have seen figures in the press indicating with some precision the relevant numbers, some even in Mauritius Times. But this intelligence cannot be inferred from the tables in the MES website. I have no special lines of information and I thirst for the exact state of affairs like any other member of the public. The information in question, held by the MES, is not the property of any government entity. We pay for it straight from our pockets by direct and indirect taxes. It must absolutely be made accessible to the public in general through the website.

The information we need in respect of every single school on the MES list are of two kinds.

Firstly, in the MES table that shows school performance in alphabetical order, we wish to see, in addition to the column showing the number of passes, additional columns showing, for each school, 1) the number of candidates having achieved Credits 1-6 in English and four other subjects, 2-6) the number of students having achieved five, four, three, two, and one credits with or without English. Just showing the number of passes is not good enough and fools not even the candidates themselves.

Secondly, the table that shows the number of students having achieved aggregate scores 6-20 must be extended to include the entire range of scores. We are not asking for a fifty-column table. Who cares how many got aggregate 13 or 14, as long we know how many got scores on the band 13-18? The results must therefore be displayed in bands. Score 6 should be a band by itself; the remaining bands should be as follows: 7-12, 13-18, 19-24, 25-30, 31-36, 37-42, 43-48, and 49-54. This number of columns can be handled quite easily; it will provide the nation with sufficient information to judge the performances of the various schools, and of the various planning and supervisory units of the Ministry of Education. It will also, very importantly, foster competition among schools. Competition is the greatest force that spurs units to action and invention. It will unleash the hidden genius of our nation. However, the competition must be between schools and not between individual children of the same school who must instead be taught to cooperate with one another.

About the 2010-2019 figures shown in the table, the first thing to notice is the continuing decline in the cohort size. It is a sure sign that the growth rate in the population is declining, but that is a theme that I am not pursuing here. I would still like to point out, however, that at the CPE level, the cohort level has gone down from 29,569 at the beginning of the decade to 23,826 at the end; some classrooms built for the starting cohort size by the MSM-MMM government will now be redundant; the teaching personnel recruited for the earlier cohort size should be having fewer pupils in their classes, and would normally be expected to do a better job.

The pass rate at the CPE level has gone up from 62.2% to 65.8%; it had even reached 70.7 % for the previous cohort. This is the only bright spot in the picture, as at the SC level, the pass rate has gone down from 77.8% to 69.0%. This even shields the real catastrophe, as MES statistics tables just show bare pass figures for individual schools, and not the number of passes with Credits 1-6. It is widely believed that two-thirds of those passes are without five Credits 1-6.

What we know for a fact is that of the 18,500 or so who sat for the SC in 2019, approximately 10,600 have not been able to score a Credit 1-6 in English; in 2010, it was about the same number, but then that number was one-third of the cohort size; now it is approaching one-half of the cohort. 10,000 have fared similarly badly in French. In Maths, it is worse: more than 11,600 have failed to get a satisfactory credit in the subject. For a nation that aspires to be a knowledge hub, we are in deep trouble.

However, these figures must be qualified. As in previous years, we are again faced with the ambiguity between “School” and “National” results. The MES table displaying the pass rates for schools indicates the total number of candidates in the Republic as 15,483. We get nearly the same number, namely 15,455, when we add the numbers in the table showing performance by individual schools by name. However, in the table headed “Grade Distribution by Subject – School Candidates”, the number of entrants for French is 18,503; we get numbers of the same order when we add the number of entrants for the two English papers and also for the two Maths papers. This is why we have to distinguish between a “School” cohort and a “National” cohort. There probably are very valid reasons why the figures are as they are. But their presentation is misleading. A separate aggregate table is required to show the results of the candidates from only the schools listed in the website.

Why don’t we have any information about the performance of the select (and very expensive) private schools (for instance, the Ecole du Centre) cropping up all over the country. Parents wish to know about the performance of all schools. The establishment of such schools is a sad reflection on the quality of government-run schools: parents are tightening their belts to be able to afford sending their children to those schools.

The stats once again show that girls have done better than boys all round. To begin with there were 1800 more girl than boy candidates. However, it must not be thought that the numerical superiority of girls in the groupings stems only from their higher numbers as candidates. Their success in percentage terms in the various categories is generally much better than that of boys. At the school level, the pass rate is 73.3% for girls, while just 67.9% for boys. It is the same story at the “national’ level.

In the matter of passes with Credits 1-6 in English, the pass rate for girls in English is 50.7%, but only 37.6% for boys; corresponding rates for French were 49.6% for girls and 41.3% for boys. Only in Maths did girls fare less well than boys did: 42.3% for them as against 47.7% for the boys. Even there, the actual number of girls scoring Credits 1-6 is higher than that of boys: 3308 for girls as against 3157 for boys. In the matter of passes with six units, girls repeated their performance of earlier years: 82 girls scored 6 units as against only 58 boys. The whole national cohort benefited from 3599 instances of Credit 1’s; girls collected 2065 of them, leaving only 1534 to boys. Before jumping to the conclusion that our girls have higher IQs than our boys, it is important to carry out a systematic analysis of the quality of teaching in girls’ and boys’ schools. We hope that some researcher at the University takes this up for examination.

I am duty bound to point out that  figures quoted take no account of the results of the MGI schools, which are “mixed gender” schools, nor of the sole six-uniter of Rodrigues College. QEC alone had 44 instances of six-uniters, while RCC, the best performing boys’ school, had only 30. Regarding those who scored 6-20 units, girls had 665 instances, and boys only 595; again these figures take no account of the MGI schools (which together had 184 instances), and of Rodrigues College, which had 76 instances. If boys and girls in these schools sit in the same classes and have the same teachers, a study of their performances over time might help on the question of IQ distribution between the sexes.

The performance by Rodrigues College students deserves a special note. Their performance is a truly remarkable achievement for Rodrigues, which, along with Black River, had been widely publicised as the exemplar of the step-motherly treatment of Creoles in the matter of education by successive governments.

Concerning the subjects studied at our schools, English, French and Maths necessarily attracted the highest number of candidates. The next most popular set seems to be Principles of Accounts, Economics and Business Studies. Then come Computer Science and Additional Mathematics. Other subjects like Travel & Tourism and Art & Design follow. Physics, Chemistry and Biology come much lower down in the popularity list. One would hope that the MOE have some policy for encouraging schools to teach STEM-relevant subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). This matter cannot be left to the commercial interests of private school managers or private tuition practitioners.

One annually recurrent surprise is the large number of students offering Additional Mathematics: this year more than 6000 of our 15,500 school students chose this subject, but only about half of them secured a Credit 1-6. This story keeps repeating itself year after year. Add Maths is indeed a very useful subject for those wishing to pursue the STEM line. But only about 3600 chose Physics, the pre-eminent indicator of interest in STEM. Is interest in the subject being aroused more by the needs of private tuition practitioners than of the pupils themselves? There are indeed a large number of hoardings advertising private tuition in Add Maths along our roads, but none whatever about Statistics. The appropriate math subject for Economics at this level is Statistics and not Additional Mathematics. It would be interesting to know how many of the 7000 odd who chose Economics also chose Additional Mathematics and how many chose Statistics, which was chosen by only 17 candidates;  13 of them got Credit 1-6, and just one failed.

Low turnout for Statistics is also an annual recurrent event, a subject of constant disappointment and sorrow to me, as I yearn for a more even spread of knowledge in our youngsters. It would seem that our private tuition practitioners, who really control education in this country, don’t know anything about Statistics, and how easy it is to teach it and how more confidently they could ensure that their victims got a good credit in it. Nobody is truly numerate until he or she has mastered some basic statistical concepts. The Ministry should do something about this lop-sidedness.

Overall, the table of Cohort Performance from 2010 to 2019 shows that national performance at SC level is declining steadily: a whole decade of continuous decline cannot be a matter of pride for the nation. Is this decline ever going to stop?

Compiled from MES Statistics by Paramanund Soobarah for the Brindaban Linguistic and Cultural Genocide Watch Group

* * *

Nothing but steady decline

Education in Mauritius was conducted in the decade under review under the stewardship of two successive ministers, namely Vasant Bunwaree to December 2014, and Mrs Leela Devi Dookun thereafter. Prior to that, in the previous decade, under Minister Dharam Gokool, there had been some encouraging signs of improvement, particularly as regards the English Language. The decade just gone by has sadly been one of nothing but steady decline.

The principal stakeholders in the country in the matter of education seem to be private tuition practitioners, textbook writers, private school managers and the MIE. It would seem that none of the parties wants any change: the current state of affairs is highly beneficial to them. The MIE particularly know everything there is to know about education; if, as in the epigram about Benjamin Jowett, there is something they don’t know, then it isn’t knowledge. No Minister seems to be powerful enough to shake them up. The major structural changes that Ministers make are usually driven by pre-conceived ideologies that more often than not make things worse, but they do nothing, or cannot do anything, to change what is taught to teachers by the MIE.

One important change that I recall from Minister Bunwaree’s time was the policy of allowing candidates with three Credits access to the Higher School Certificate classes. Another one, a still more unfortunate one in my view, and from which the country is not likely to recover, was his implementation of the so-called “grafilarmoni” script for the writing of the Creole language.

During just over half of the decade, Minister Leela-Devi Dookun was, and still is, at the helm of affairs. She has had to cope with legacy left behind by the MSM-MMM government of 2000-05 (Blairite concepts such Stages 1-4 transplanted from the UK, an awful regionalisation system that makes no sense to any sane person (instead of our good old-fashioned districts), a strong push for Creole, etc.) What her own views are on these issues, I don’t know. But she seems to have been totally captured by Blairite ideologies – witness her fondness for Academies, another Blairite concept.

With her Nine-Year Schooling scheme, a major structural reform that required considerable effort and willpower to push through, she seems to have succeeded in reducing competition at the CPE, but it entails keeping many children at school who will have nothing to do with it for another three years. She does not seem to have learnt the saying “One may take a horse to water, but twenty cannot make him drink”.

The Nine Year Schooling is certainly good for horses that won’t drink. For the others, there is no system better than the good old system of secondary education stretching over seven-years at one and the same school from Form I to Form VI, even if these are restyled Grades 7 to whatever. And the cherry on the cake is to get your Form VI teachers to teach some subjects to the new entrants in Form I.

In such a system, every pupil is known by face and name to all in the school right through his stay there. The confessional schools deserve to be commended for retaining the Form I to Form VI system; but their traditional constituency is changing fast: the elites they used to cater for are moving to the new breed of expensive private schools, and they are having to turn to the “cités” to fill their classrooms.

On one point, however, Mrs Leela-Devi Dookun does deserve to be warmly commended. I had sub-titled my article on this subject last year “What about the 60%?” I had explained that since 1982, the only chorus one could hear was how the government was allowing 40% to fail the CPE and doing nothing for them. The 40% mantra has been repeated ad nauseam, locally and internationally online to malign our governments, some of which even took a leading part in spreading this largely perverted view of the efforts of the pre-1982 Labour governments under SSR.

All governments since his overthrow have crafted their national education policies with only the 40% in mind. And, surprise of surprises, the government toeing that line most assiduously has been the Labour government of 2009-2014. They outdid the MMM in their “care and affection” for the 40% with their support for “Kreol”! Throughout all these years nobody cared for the fact that more than half of the remaining 60% were having a very raw deal, in spite of free secondary education.

Mrs Leela-Devi Dookun, while messing up the country with her Nine-Year-Schooling scheme, has still shown that she does care about that unfortunate segment of our cohorts. I doubt whether she, or anybody else, can do anything to improve secondary education as long as the present stranglehold over it by the present stakeholders continues. She has found a way to do something about half of the 60% that “fail” or perform poorly at the SC. Her policy of setting up Polytechnics for them has come as a new lifeline for them. It is also, in my view, a new lifeline for the nation.

There is still a long way to go before her polytechnics can absorb all the potential candidates, but she has made a start, and to all appearances has picked the right man for the job. We need skilled persons at the lower and middle management of companies, and they must be trained. The aim is not to produce graduates and doctorates, but even that can come later: the system will permit late developers to find their way to the top, as happens in Singapore.

One important hurdle to a satisfactory education in the country must be addressed head on: it is the mastery of spoken English. The written language is taught like any other subject, like mathematics or Biology. It must be taught like a communication tool. Children in pre-primary primary classes must be taught the proper sounds of the language through rhymes and recitations. The teachers of those classes themselves must master those sounds correctly, with appropriate testing and retraining if required. There must be more spoken English in the secondary level classrooms. All subjects, except language ones, are already being taught in English; regrettably, Creole is also allowed: this exempts pupils from making the necessary effort to frame their questions in English, and also permits a teacher less than fully competent in the language to frame his explanations in Creole. If we really want to improve the level of English, spoken and written, in the country, every subject teacher must also act an English language teacher. The push for Creole must be countered.

Another change will substantially improve our secondary education is the abolition of the present laureateship system. It is outdated and has become unhealthy. It encourages too much competition among pupils who have become averse to sharing any knowledge or information they may have with fellow students. What is required is a system that rewards teamwork and team effort rather than individual effort. Classes that show the best overall performance together with the greatest evidence of cooperation within the class should be rewarded. Class activities should include, in addition to academic study, items like music and singing, indoor and outdoor games and sports as well a dose of social work.

All major companies in the world are “knowledge organisations”. In such organisations, people must necessarily cooperate internally, and compete externally. Our education system must prepare our future workforce for such practices of internal cooperation and external competition.

* Published in print edition on 21 February 2020

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