Where is the nine-year schooling?

There is undoubted intention in Mauritius to improve education, but not all of the reforms seem aligned with current thinking or in the interest of children and some critical aspects seem cosmetic rather than fundamental. Reform has been bandied around as “9-year schooling”. However what appears is 6 + 3 + 4….a fragmentation. Authentic 9-year models have students in the same school for nine years with no national competitive exam. Testing within the 9 years should be for benchmarking, formative or diagnostic purposes. Research maintains that youngsters need to compete with themselves and not with peers. Parents should not compare children with the neighbors’ children and siblings but recognize the value added to their child over time…each child being unique and not comparable with another.
Young Mauritians will endure two exam sessions within 9 years, both high stakes and competitive. The PSAC will breed competition not only in Standard 6 but in Standard 5. This is designed to purportedly reduce stress, but in fact will prolong the stress and tuitions over two consecutive….rather dehumanizing. Cooped up in rooms to rote learn, 9 and 10 year olds do not deserve such a deal. These assessments are competitive and for selection purposes instrumental in determining college admission.
The reform suggests a modular system but what appears is a subject approach. Currently primary education is moving towards a transdisciplinary approach but in Mauritius there will be a strict division into ‘Core’ and ‘Non-Core’ subjects – a compartmentalized approach instead of facilitating valuable connections between subjects.
Mauritian adults are obsessed with examinations! The nine-year schooling requires another competitive exam after Grade 9 (age 13), the National Certificate of Education to decide on a stream: ‘academic, technical or professional’. Exams will decide not passion or choice. Destructively inequity and tuitions will ensue as colleges have already been branded as elite colleges for those selected.
Intelligence is plural
Educators who have counseled 13-year olds comprehend the import of a subject choice made at this formative age.  Wise educators attempt to delay. The International General Certificate of Secondary Education enables a broad range of subjects, to ensure minimum career doors are closed. High achievers could opt for ten while low achievers could opt for fewer subjects. Research proves that intelligence is plural. Linguistic and mathematical are two of the abilities, but there are at least six and some experts insist there are ten. It is imperative to identify these multiple intelligences in every child and develop the potential.
The first big public examination that students undertake should be at the mature age of 15. We underestimate youngsters in assuming we need to decide which stream they ought to pursue. Experience has proved that the grades attained at the Grade 11 (age 15) give ample direction to an indecisive child.
Reform in education needs two guiding principles: EQUITY and QUALITY. Equity can only be realized when competitive examinations are reduced to the essential.  Quality ensues with a combination of factors but the most important is quality of classroom instruction.
However examinations continue to serve a summative need and we have indulged in ranking and competition ad nauseam to the detriment of young people. Assessments should serve other purposes: the formative and diagnostic whereby the student and the teacher learn from the process to improve. Grading and reporting have serious impacts on children and therefore require thoughtful planning. Guiding principles for effective grading and reporting have been outlined through research so we do not need to reinvent the wheel. Marks and averages are known to cloud evaluation and demotivate children. Surprisingly, competitive grading has proved harmful to both advanced and struggling learners though few will believe. Ideally effective assessment looks like a photo album i.e. a collection of evidence. Undeniably multi-faceted grading and reporting breeds success and motivation while examinations and competition breeds low self-esteem.
The “Understanding by Design” (UbD) framework is used by educators to guide curriculum, assessment and instruction by what is famously called a ‘backward design’. Let’s move the education debate to the quality of instruction in the classroom. Children deserve vibrant, contemporary and collaborative approaches instead of chalk and talk. Discussion on years of schooling, examinations and school buildings will not impact on the most critical aspect which is unequivocally the quality of teaching. My best lesson was under the trees in India by the banks of a stream in Mauritius and a park in China. Indoor tuitions have plagued Mauritius for years, though irrefutably children need to be involved in activities beyond pure academics within four walls.
Educators are rushing to learn from the 9-year schooling in Finland, success not attributed to rocket science. It was based on equity rather than exams and competition, high investment in continuous professional development, balance between academic and hands-on classes, small class size with diverse students with extra help for the struggling, no high-stakes standardized testing, a collaborative environment and time for play.
 Mauritius needs to focus on curriculum that provides opportunities to learn generic skills: thinking, research and communication. The “Assessment and Teaching of 21st-Century Skills” in Melbourne worked with institutions worldwide and determined that two skills need to be developed: collaborative problem–solving and ICT literacy. Learning–to-learn skills needs to be taught but must be concurrent with content and not as an add-on. Research has already proved that students “don’t pick up these skills unless they’re taught in the context of content”.
Inclusion whereby all/most children are in the same classroom may require ‘accommodation and ‘modification’ strategies. Schools need a special education department to cater to children in need of special arrangements. Differentiated instruction to address learner variance will come as the system matures and teachers feel equipped to take up the challenge.
All schools would need facilities to support research-based learning, digital literacy and hands on learning. Hands on learning is already underway in Mauritius through an NGO gardening programme in primary schools. Additionally ‘Service learning’ is likely to be popular in Mauritius given that youngsters seek to engage with the community.
Though “good teaching comes from identity and integrity of the teacher”, regular professional development would ensure alignment with contemporary approaches. Teachers need to be confident about their capacity to affect student achievement in the absence of extra tuition and engender a sense of excitement for learning. The work of Mc William indicates that it is not enough for a teacher to be a ‘sage on the stage’ and a ‘guide on the side’ but also a ‘meddler in the middle’. Research in the US revealed that though subject-matter is a prerequisite for effective teaching, after a certain level of subject-knowledge, an increase in subject-matter may not enhance student achievement. Pedagogical knowledge, however, has proved to consistently impact student achievement.
From a manager to an effective instructional leader
Schools need quality leadership to ensure that teachers and students are supported, that curriculum standards are met and indiscipline is not rampant. Leadership is the key for an effective school and Principals must seem to be in the hot seat for improving teaching and learning and creating a conducive environment. The Principal’s role must shift from a manager to an effective instructional leader.
Pessimists may argue that this sounds like a timetabling, infrastructural and resourcing nightmare! Those with meaningful educational experience know that you cannot leap into education reform without a pilot phase. Well-established educational boards e.g. the International Baccalaureate and the College Board have known to pilot programmes before launching. Why should Mauritius buck this trend and put youngsters at risk? So what are the possibilities?
 11-year schooling at the end of which all students undertake an external examination be it SC, IGCSE or any other equivalent. This is already in place in Mauritius. Within the school there may be sections primary, middle, lower secondary for purposes of discipline. But this would be difficult to implement in Mauritius given that current primary schools do not have the facilities for older students.
9-year schooling in which students follow a common curriculum from Grades 1 to 9. The Cambridge Primary and Secondary 1 provide interesting qualifications that can be combined with the local/national curriculums to form a blended school curriculum in Mauritius. Cambridge is well received and understood in Mauritius. Teachers will be supported by Cambridge curriculum guides, sample lessons plans and schemes of work.
A school-based examination in Grade 9 along with the Cambridge Secondary 1 Checkpoint assessment will help students select subjects for Grade 10. The Cambridge assessment provides statements of achievement and detailed feedback reports for both the learners and the school. Students are not norm-referenced but criterion-referenced and children meeting the clearly defined standards for a subject must be given the opportunity to follow a chosen subject. Schools should offer a reasonable number and variety of subjects to cater to various learners. Career counselors must help students via plenary sessions and if required at the individual level.
Indeed this sounds like a tall order, but Mauritian children deserve the best of current practices being instituted elsewhere. Success stories emerge from Singapore, South Korea, Ecuador, Finland, Japan etc.  Decided efforts by all stakeholders will permit Mauritius to emerge as a model for Africa. Irrelevant politics, lobbying, vested interests and outdated thinking needs to be sacrificed if we wish to nurture the most valuable resource.  There is ample research, models and templates to help make wise decisions instead of treating children like guinea pigs. 6 or 9 or 11 years of schooling is not as important as quality and equity. Let’s pull together Mauritians and give youngsters the happy schooling they deserve and live up to being the star and key of the Indian Ocean.