The Middle Class and State Secondary Education

Better standards of health and education are maintained in a state system when the middle class makes use of the system

For the first time in recent years, many more parents – not only those from the middle class – have put a private secondary school as their first choice instead of a state secondary school for admission for their wards. This is understandable given that parents know best the pressure that their children have undergone during the last three years, and will continue to undergo during the coming years with the implementation of changes regarding admission to secondary schools.

Though parents were promised by the Ministry of Education that the changes proposed by the education reform would reduce examination pressure and improve the quality of education, nothing of the sort has happened. Continuous assessments were simply a euphemism for more examinations and finally the Primary School Achievement Certificate (PSAC) examination has turned out to be a watered-down Certificate of Primary Education (with the same CPE syllabus) with a view to increasing the Pass Rate; the new subjects introduced are merely peripherals offered to convey the impression of change.

Unfortunately for many parents, access to private secondary education will be limited to a small number of students. The disappointment with Nine Year Basic Education Reform is not only confined to parents. Even the Minister must have been disappointed, for all that her technicians could provide her with in terms of a plan for Nine Year Schooling was a hastily written draft with few sentences – made convenient for a PowerPoint presentation for lack of a coherent reform plan. It will thus not be surprising that future queries or clarifications regarding education matters will be passed on to the Mauritius Examinations Syndicate, which will be called upon to explain the rationale of the related policy decisions or flaws likely to emerge in the admission process.

In the meantime parents are having to put up with the situation for some more time in the hope that a Labour government would scrap the Nine Year Schooling as it has already promised to do so. Since a leap in the dark usually comes with a hard landing, parents will have to wait for early January to get a full grasp of the implications of the changes in the admission process. For many parents, it is clear that the proposed changes have already intensified pressure on their children right from grade 4 and will continue to do so every year until grade 9, and further still until the end of secondary education.

A system which systematically puts pressure on pupils every year from lower primary up to the end of secondary education is unhealthy, unnecessary, and detrimental to children and the learning process.

This is not to deny that some form of pressure hasn’t always existed in our primary education system especially with regard to access to secondary schools. Efforts have been made in recent years to ease the pressure, but unfortunately the unintended consequences could not be grasped and pressure has intensified over the years. Parents cannot be blamed for trying to get their children admitted in what are perceived to be the best State Secondary Schools (SSS) – though we all know that the output of these State schools has much more to do with the individual input of their students than anything else.

Since parental aspirations for star state schools could not be deflected, several measures were taken to dampen their aspirations and reduce demand for star schools. The conversion of star colleges in the state sector into form 6 was viewed as a form of discrimination to undermine star state schools and created a backlash. Form 6 colleges ultimately proved to be a failure.

The laudable efforts to build about 30 state colleges could not satisfy demand for seats since it has remained impossible to this day to provide places in the 68 state colleges for pupils coming from 318 primary schools. In 2016, only 44% of students were admitted in State Secondary Schools while 56% had to go to private and unaided colleges. Pressure for star SSSs shifted to regional colleges, which went on to emerge as the new star institutions and the criterion of proximity became another discriminatory measure.

The Labour Party rejected form 6 colleges and resisted a demand from within the party to convert the four major star colleges into specialized colleges for Science and Business studies. It promised to restore the star state colleges just like those in the private education sector with a view to maintaining parity of esteem between the two sectors. Consequently it was compelled to have recourse to the A+ grading to make access to star colleges based on merit. This unfortunately was the unintended consequence of parents putting more pressure on their children so as to gain access to the star schools.

Opinions will differ as to whether the present changes will spell catastrophic for both primary and secondary education, but there is general consensus that none of the major problems facing the education sector have been addressed. The present changes have instead aggravated the weaknesses of the educational system. They have also introduced a further dose of discrimination: some students in the private education sector will be able to pursue their secondary education as from Grade 7 till the end of their secondary schooling – thus in a manner which is conducive to better learning and teaching; the others, mostly those in the public sector, will have to face constant pressure during their secondary education and suffer dislocation during their school career. The trauma for both parents and pupils will be devastating. Such a system is usually advocated by the conservatives who thrive on discrimination and inequality and will do everything to undermine the state system.

Unlike what obtains in many countries, state primary and secondary education establishments have remained the first choice of Mauritian parents, including the middle class. There are many benefits in an institution when the student population is drawn from all classes irrespective of their religion and ethnicity. Our state colleges have so far fulfilled this mission despite all the weaknesses one can identify in the system.

The present changes are encouraging the flight of the middle class from the state system. We all know that better standards of health and education are maintained in a state system when the middle class makes use of the system for they are the ones who can put pressure to constantly improve standards. The flight of the middle class from the state system is detrimental to education and society as a whole, and a future government will be expected come up with solutions to deal with these issues in a spirit of fairness and equity.

 

* Published in print edition on 1 December 2017

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