Nine Year Schooling & PSAC: Will they bear fruit?

Education Reform

End-of-year secondary school intake process, procedures and potential challenges will constitute the first real test of the NYS pudding

The third and final term of primary school pupils has begun and we have to wish children, parents and educators a smooth passageway and transition to the first step of secondary education constituted by Grade 7, the name-substituted Form 1. Countless numbers of parents will be on edge as the children progress through the final learning and revisions, the modular assessment schedules of Primary School Achievement Certificate (PSAC), and the results proclamation which will have a bearing on their future growth and adolescent development years.

Several features of the Nine-Year Schooling reform will come into play at this end-of-year juncture and we have no doubt that all education establishments, the Mauritius Institute of Education (MIE) and the Mauritius Examination Syndicate (MES) will be eagerly poised at the bedsides to ensure this first exercise does indeed bear the expected fruits embodied in the Reform proposals.

Let us recap what key changes those reforms are meant to bring at this stage:

  1. a) As we gather, former CPE examinations are modularised to some extent – for non-core subjects – so that pupils do not face a full-blown examination in all subjects at one sitting. All students will receive an Achievement Certificate (PSAC) and their graded result slip by subject (English, French, Mathematics, Science, History & Geography and an additional language; Communication Skills being the non-core subject). This should effectively remove the stigma of former CPE failures, but more on this later.
  2. b) It is understood that many teachers or teaching assistants and remedial teachers have been recruited in the laudable effort of earlier detection of pupils struggling to cope with the normal pace of studies and provide in-school assistance in one way or another. However, we suspect that this extra coaching is still very much related to bringing them back to the standard education pathway, rather than exploring alternatives that might be better suited to their growth path and difficulties coping with the existing education environment. In any case, with the end of CPE results, will there be any way of gauging the impact of those extra resources on the consistent failure of some 30% of pupils to emerge from 6 years of primary schooling with basic numeracy or literacy skills?
  3. c) With the removal of a higher grade (A+), the MES grades will now run from below 30% (grade 6) to above 75% (grade 1) only. Educators and headmasters should have been adequately briefed on these elements by now. Although it is meant to reduce competitive stress, many educators have professed some disappointment about the absence of an arching threshold for pupils to aim for above the 75% marks.

Such an A+ grade, as was previously operative, would have facilitated the selection and admission to secondary schools. With the new system, it is feared that the MES may need to have recourse to actual marks to differentiate close candidates and justify their regional college assignations to parents.
End-of-year secondary school intake process, procedures and potential challenges will no doubt constitute the first real test of the NYS pudding and we hope neither parents nor children are put through unnecessary stress.

  1. d) In this context, an exclusively regional admission mechanism is being reverted to with the abolition of Grade 7 intakes in the previous network of twelve National Colleges. Neither the QEC, nor the Royal Colleges, the John Kennedy College, nor any of the other “star” colleges will be available to parents whose children have shone at the PSAC. In the Mauritian context, that means not only many less seats for deserving pupils but also a reduced freedom to conjoin and share educational life with the best-performing children from across the country. Such a cross-breeding and cross-fertilisation of ideas, ethos, cultural values, perspectives and studies that were taking place in National Access colleges will now be reserved for a restricted cohort at Grade 10 onwards.

While this is in itself a questionable outcome of NYS, the plainer truth for many rectors and professionals, is that competition at a national level will all too predictably operate for access to the best local or regional secondary institution, breeding another layer of substitute “star” colleges to the national ones. Even with staggered modular examinations or lower grade markings, neither the pervasive private tuition industry, nor potential residential address trafficking, nor heated and fractious challenges of college assignations, nor all the ills associated with early competitive pressures will have subsided.

  1. e) In a previous contribution (‘A lost opportunity?’ – Mauritius Times, 28 July 17) it was observed that to the 30% CPE failure rates, or the 40-50% that reach secondary school age with minimal literacy and numeracy skills, must be added another 15-20% who for one reason or another drop out of the secondary stream. In other words, with mammoth annual funding and resources, with a considerable base of specialists and specialist institutions, with considerable ongoing training and re-training efforts, with dedicated staffing at all levels (barring the odd ones), our current education system generates satisfying results (i.e. by its traditional measure, a reasonable HSC) for a meagrely 30% of the 15,000 cohort that enter primary schools.

“Echec” and “décrochage scolaire” have obviously numerous correlates (family backgrounds, personal and psychological problems, motivational factors, unsupportive environments, the school and curricular straitjacket…) and we are not confident that the Education Ministry has ever thought fit to commission an independent scientific transverse or longitudinal study of the phenomenon.

  1. f) Many of the dropouts do end up getting onto some form of informal apprenticeships and some of the more agile have the wherewithal to access a variety of MITD training schemes. Yet this is more often a personal initiative than the result of structured and planned educational pathways leading to a minimum set of skills and competencies, opening the door to their future development as integrated and productive members of society.

What is acutely disappointing is that the NYS Reform has as yet perhaps not formulated its policies to tackle the phenomenon. Automatic promotion and allowing pupils who would have failed CPE onto Grade 7, to face the greater recesses of a far broader range of subjects, when they can barely read, write or count is obviously far off the mark. Even with an extra year and some more coaching, it may be postponing the failure stigmata a further three years, without addressing the core issues. It is feared that the shorter, more adapted skill and competency oriented education pathways, will become options for the drop-outs.

Do we need reminding ourselves that even if only 5000 pupils each year fail through our education system and fail to be enrolled by whatever safety nets in operation, we are left after fifty years of independence with a full quarter of the total population at risk of having meandered into the worst social ills. It is perhaps not surprising that today’s society seems clearly to be facing a glaring state of malignant criminality and delinquency of multiple origins. But education reform could have charted meaningful pathways that cater for the greater numbers while offering opportunities to reach beyond the comfort zone for those better endowed or better suited to traditional education.

The importance and urgency of the situation will hopefully seep through to the Education establishment. If it calls for an in-depth review of our “import and adapt” education system that, as in many former UK colonies, has been handed to us, we have the resources and inherent abilities to do so. NYS is as yet a tweaking of an unadapted, unfunctional heritage. The proposal to convert seven-year star colleges into four-year Academies catering for a restricted elite who will be selected at yet another fiercely competitive examination at Grade 10, symbolises the culmination of a flawed approach. We recoil from the perspectives of all those secondary colleges who are supposed to yield their better students to Academies while they struggle with the “left-overs”.

The proposal has quite legitimately flummoxed the private and confessional college administrations who have declined to either make their pupils sit for National Form III examinations or to create Academies of their own. Responsible for more than 50% of student intakes, boasting of a long tradition of involvement in education, their views have been ignored. As anxious parents grasp that extra hurdles, extra competition, extra stress, and extra examinations will therefore be the fate devoted to public secondary schools only, they are stampeding towards the private and confessional colleges. This may be an unintended fruit of the NYS reform, but the writings have been on the wall ever since its inception.

We nevertheless wish to extend to all pupils, parents and educators a relatively smooth, unharried and fruitful third term!

 

* Published in print edition on 18 August 2017

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