Nine Year Schooling: A lost opportunity?

The Nine-Year Schooling contraption is an opportunity lost for
a real re-engineering of our education system. It will have
to be revamped

Last week’s issue of Mauritius Times carried a stark reminder from Sadda Reddi of how our education system fails to provide basic literacy and numeracy skills to near half of our primary school children, year in, year out. The education establishment in all its manifold structures and the no doubt admirable efforts of countless dedicated teachers, operating sometimes in difficult circumstances, have barely made a dent in this tragic state of affairs over several decades since independence.

It is even more disturbing that, while there is a full-fledged ministry to look after those who progress satisfactorily along the educational ladder, there are neither structures nor even basic information about the whereabouts and fate of those who, for a variety of reasons and through circumstances beyond their young years, find themselves abandoned by the wayside at various ages, struggling through worryingly unknown means to make a living. Today’s ghastly headline-makers, from petty delinquents to hardened marauders, drug-traffickers and cold-blooded murderers were obviously yesterday’s youth and, even if not all responsibility should be ascribed to our schools and teachers for all rising social ills, we surely cannot be content with that state of affairs.

As a non-frontline specialist or even practitioner in this noble calling, we will accept that the primary/secondary education establishment over those decades, under multiple political regimes and Education Ministers, has indeed tried multiple avenues to reduce the size and scale of the annual tragedy that takes place in primary schooling: from consolidating early childhood or pre-primary to remedial schooling, from priority education (ZEP) schools to vacation classes, from curriculum redesign to continuous teacher retooling and more. We would also concur that the avenues, processes and thoughts have probably been largely inspired by available levels of international pedagogical experiences and that a sizeable body of education specialists, including psychologists and other support staff, are in the employ of the Ministry and its affiliate institutions (PSSA, MIE, MES,…)

Yet, if the results have been so glaringly modest over decades, if not downright resource-consuming failures, our contention here is that our corporate body of pedagogues should be willing to rethink the system far more incisively than past and current efforts have done. To put it differently, using a somewhat trite metaphor, if a farmer or an industrialist every year stores all his produce in a single stainless-steel container only to find that half regularly goes off after a while, whatever remedial measures he tries, from better cleaning the vessel or better aseptising the produce, it might finally dawn on him that the stainless-steel container might itself be the source of his otherwise intractable chronic problem.

Ours is an “import and adapt” education system that, as occurred in many former UK colonies, has been handed to us. It worked in the former colonial power if the primary objective was to produce a small elite ruling class that would emerge unscathed or with flying colours from a system geared for the long trials of an academic or knowledge-oriented pathway, leading eventually to a University degree. They were probably needed by the hundreds annually to support not only the UK’s internal management requirements but also the demands of middle and top-level cadres in various outlaying colonies.

When the times changed, when demands evolved, when parental expectations grew, when the UK lost the need to fuel the exactions of its empire, its education system was found wanting on several fronts. Chief of which, an academic cursus geared for the longer haul and the lack of regard for competency or skill-driven education opportunities as opposed to the knowledge pathway, ingrained as the nobler pursuit. Colleges of further or technical education were tried but attracting what were considered generally as academic-pursuit drop-outs or the feebler classes, they were rarely a tempting pathway.

Our primary and secondary education system has the inherited the qualities and deficiencies of its imported ancestor. It has also served us well in producing since independence excellent graduating avenues for generations that have often done so through enormous sacrifices and difficulties of children and parents. Those opportunities for the longer-haul knowledge pathways should by all means be preserved and expanded rather than constricted or restricted. In 2015, near 20,000 pupils took part in CPE examinations, some 11,000 passed their Cambridge School Certificates (SC) and some 7,500 passed their HSC, a substantial fraction of whom will enter tertiary education.

In other words, the system, even with the pressures of competition and harrowing private tuition, ultimately works well for that one-third of the education population that for a variety of reasons adapt successfully to the longer haul. It offers minimal solace to the 50% of those who struggle at CPE-level and the further 15-20% who drop out of secondary education.

The Nine-Year Schooling contraption (NYS), purporting to be a wide-ranging reform, merely consolidates the academic orientation through more examinations, more selection, more private tuition producing an elite of 1500 pupils that will be regrouped in Academies. Competency or skill-oriented education has not as yet been structured as a meaningful avenue in its own right, rather than a poor sibling for struggling students. Polytechnics are at the upper end of secondary education. The little that had been achieved in pre-vocational streaming, probably against establishment interest, is to be scuttled. Primary-school CPE or PSAC failures will be pushed on to the even more demanding scope of academic secondary education. We will not dwell on other undesirable outcomes of NYS. It is another imposed exercise, fraught with difficulties and inequities, that is set to implode.

As in 2003, the private sector and the Roman Catholic Education Authorities and some secondary teacher unions have rejected the Ministry’s proposals and the thrust towards Academies. Parents have ingrained that more exams, more competition, more private tuition, more school changes and exclusively regional admissions to colleges are destined exclusively for parents and children attending or relying on the public sector. Despite communication efforts of the Ministry, their fears and worries have yet to be quelled. From a kinder perspective, NYS is an opportunity lost for a real re-engineering of our education system. It will have to be revamped.

S. Callikan

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