The inability of most students to score 5 credits at SC despite all possible facilities is the result of multiple intertwined factors sufficiently alarming to beg closer scrutiny and introspection. Successive Ministers of Education, in inheriting a crisis-weary system but, no doubt, imbued with the best intentions, have always recited the following all-too-familiar mantra of change and hope: students’ talents will be discovered and full potential developed, a passion for life-long learning will be encouraged, a rich diversity of learning experiences will be provided, and the joy of useful learning and entrepreneurial dare will be encouraged and nurtured.
The ground realities, however, are devoid of the promised dazzling splendour, and are shockingly at odds with the elegance of the above litany, specially in the eyes of those fed on the notion that the system would provide wings to their dreams.
Asking the Right Questions
Embattled as it is on multiple fronts, our education system continues to swallow omnivorously, like a famished tapeworm, the ever-ballooning costs running into billions of rupees. The ills plaguing the system will continue as long as we choose not to ask the right questions and lack necessary political will for corrective measures. Any educational reform must be rooted in an analysis of the problems it seeks to address since quality education is too crucial an issue to be tampered with by successive governments in a bid to score political mileage. The conditions get further muddied when artificial alternative realities are massaged into believable narratives.
Ministers, Technocrats, Advisors
Our various Ministers of Education have been different in multiple ways, but alike in the mistakes they make. They all want to bring THEIR particular brand of reform. The unvarnished truth is that most of them assume office without the necessary global vision, as a result of their complete lack of immersion in the world of education. They become dependent on the borrowed vision of technocrats who, marooned behind their office desks, are bereft of the foggiest idea of ground realities.
Politically-appointed Advisors, on the other hand, are expected to ‘advise’ the Minister. But whatever educational baggage Advisors or Ministers bring with them by virtue of having been teachers is the experience in teaching the same subject and helping to master model answers during private tuition. Yet, what is required is an appropriate and meaningful vision for education which determines the direction to a collective destination –- a direction that fits the needs of students and the country. The inability to see over the horizon, therefore, becomes tempting to opt for a move to hastily plant an imported model of education even if it fails to connect students with the landscape they inhabit.
PSC: Delegation of Responsibility
Such lack of proper direction inevitably paves the way to piece-meal approaches, one flagrant case being the not-so-innocent delegation of responsibility by the PSC in the appointment of staff, including Rectors, Deputy Rectors and Educators. Such a practice, initially meant only for low-level workers, is an additional feather in the already over-feathered political cap of our educational landscape.
Extension of School Hours/ Term Duration
The possibility of an incentive-induced longer school day and extended term duration, coupled with the availability of professionally-trained school Inspectors, would provide greater insights into classroom transactions and accountability by way of class population, marking of copybooks, class management, pedagogy, completion of syllabus as well as overall school management and ethos. Additionally, the inclination to only teach the syllabus at the expense of the curriculum ignores crucial dimensions and potentialities of students due to insufficient time. In fact, as per a 1993 World Bank report, the average taught hours and the average days of instruction in a year in Mauritius are among the lowest in the world, with the situation remaining unchanged since. The mere thought of bringing about corrective measures to better shepherd and prepare students’ overall dimensions becomes a hot potato best dropped furtively for all-too-obvious reasons.
However, the role of private tuition in students’ academic improvement remains an open debate, if the recent SC results are any indication. The classroom teacher, hard-pressed for time and result in an over-populated mixed-ability class, concentrates mainly on high flyers. Inversely, insufficient attention is provided to slow achievers who, the teacher hopes, will catch up during private tuition class which, strangely, remains a duplication of school classroom. Thus, mixed-ability teaching, as presently conceived, holds back high achievers, pressurises slow learners, with the average-ability students sandwiched between two opposites. In the process, the teacher, more so the pedagogically-neutral Supply Teacher, gets stressed having to deal with a class of often polar opposites who learn at very different speeds. In such a scenario, it becomes extremely difficult to improve overall performance, and the idea of reverting back to ‘streaming with a softer edge’ may be a viable option to improve results.
Revisiting Evaluation Mode
With regard to student performance, it is generally accepted that our mode of evaluation impacts our learning style. New strategies and evaluation systems since primary level need be devised to enable students to opt for different models of attainment. This will attenuate the restraining effect of the one-size-fits-all examination model which emphasises retention of information, theoretical knowledge and lower cognitive abilities. Besides literacy and numeracy, a whole assortment of examinable hands-on activities and meaningful learning experiences is essential through a plurality of low-key assignments and project works to encourage knowledge beyond the textbook. Such a change calls for a shift in the pedagogical language from a traditional Teaching Model to a Learning Model, with the learner at the centre of consideration, and textbooks emphasising traits we would wish children to acquire.
Parental Interest and Involvement: Ecole des Parents
It is a given that education flourishes best in a handshake relationship among the school, parents and society. However, the lack of parental involvement and interest in their wards’ education is a matter of grave concern. To most of them, free education and the accompanying goodies are reasons enough for abdication of responsibility. Attendance at PTA meetings no longer seems important given parents’ unbridled glee over the system. But once their wards get into trouble or fail, parents get vexed and simmer in anger, with acerbic tongue-lashings hurled at teachers and the administration. The creation of Ecole des Parents becomes a sensible option to arouse parental interest comprehensively, compellingly and compassionately.
Our perceptions are usually driven not by statis, but by images and stories. Though the flaws inherent in the system adversely affect thousands of students whose dreams get lynched, the topic hardly attracts the serious concern and analysis by the press because it is devoid of sensationalism and generates little by way of juicy news. Yes, celebrating a handful of laureates is certainly more camera-friendly and makes for better news and a more attractive TV!
Since the entire educational landscape pivots on the role, interests and aspirations of students, no stakeholders can afford to absolve themselves of any responsibility, including our educational experts and researchers who have mostly been shy of expressing themselves on the subject. Refusing responsibility on such a crucial subject amounts to a denial that water is wet.
Students’ Low Aspirations
Most students today entertain low aspirations which, coupled with an exaggerated taste of the pleasure override in the absence of accountability and discipline, renders the situation toxic and students become helpless victims of their immediate environment. In an atmosphere of parental over-protection, pampering and blinding trust, uncontrolled mobile and social media use, unfiltered friends, free education and transport, and wallets bulging at the seams, it is considered stupid to become wise through the rigours of academic discipline.
The much-maligned issue of the 5-credit requirement hatched relatively hurriedly, has created quite a ripple in the educational landscape. The Minister is surely right in her attempt to raise standards, but ignoring the fore-mentioned root causes plaguing the system will certainly not help as they all have a direct bearing on our students’ inability to score 5 credits at SC level. It is agreed that University education for all may not be the best option because reluctant students need not be forced by parental or social pressure to join university. To insist over the 5-credit requirement in a relatively short span of time is to be asked to go to bed a child and wake up an adult. It requires time for the idea to swamp their conscience, needs change in mindset, learning habits and lifestyle, parental preparation as well as school ethos.
Valorising Vocational/ Technical Education
A more reasonable extension for the implementation of the 5-credit requirement should be accompanied by an all-out valorisation of vocational and technical education campaign from the start. Students should be offered different exit points for dropouts at crucial stages of the secondary cycle for vocational/ technical education, namely, after Grade 9 National Exams, SC and HSC to prevent them from becoming street-hardened and slip into crime’s embrace. The vocational/technical training should be accompanied by a reasonable stipend by way of incentive, and the certificate/ diploma dished out under the aegis of a respectable institution locally or abroad for international recognition and mobility.
This approach would enable vocational/ technical education to be converted into a Badge of Honour, a valid, much sought-after, self-esteem boosting alternative career choice as in Singapore and Scandinavian countries, where 65% opt for that channel. In Mauritius, it is a last-ditch option and yet vocational/ technical courses should be as much about job training as about criticality, transferability of skills, creating and adapting to change, industry-relevant skills, multiple pathways, lateral transfer mid-stream, and academic credibility.
The piece-meal approach of our education system can be likened to the Ministry which, like a novice waiter facing demanding diners whom he tries to entice with an appetising menu and which ends up being but a promise of dessert with no knowledge of when and how the main course would arrive!