Modern societies have become complex structures. Almost every aspect of human behaviour is regulated in the name of national security. From a post-modernist perspective this represents a threat. Institutions such as schools are managed by a large bureaucracy that simply “manages”, as opposed to providing tools for learning and instruction that are meaningful and relevant. In this context, schools have simply failed. There is chaos, confusion and uncertainty. Let us take one example. In the United States, the signal came about three decades ago when National Commission on Excellence in Education in its report entitled A Nation at Risk (1983) warned of “a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people”.
The Atlantic sums up the situation in the United States: “On America’s latest exams (the National Assessment of Educational Progress), one-third or fewer of eighth-grade students were proficient in math, science, or reading. Our high-school graduation rate continues to hover just shy of 70 percent, according to a 2010 report by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, and many of those students who do graduate aren’t prepared for college. ACT, the respected national organization that administers college-admissions tests, recently found that 76 percent of our high-school graduates “were not adequately prepared academically for first-year college courses.” How does the United States compare with the rest of the world?  The World Economic Forum ranks it 48th in math and science education. On international math tests, the United States is near the bottom of industrialized countries (the 34 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development). While countries like China and Singapore have made enormous strides, the United States has to contend with mediocrity, excessive spending and over bureaucratisation. (HYPERLINK « https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/06/the-failure-of-american-schools/308497/ »https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/06/the-failure-of-american-schools/308497/).
While expenses on education have significantly increased everywhere, the result is both tragic and alarming. The system in the United States and elsewhere has become so elitist that only a small percentage is benefiting; this leads one to remark that modern schooling is serving the purpose of a privileged few and marginalising the rest. Those who can afford a private education have little time for a national debate on education. There is a social malaise: increased poverty and deprivation, increase in mental health, crime and delinquency, inequality, and unemployment. What has gone wrong? If the school system cannot be fixed, then abolish the schools. Mauritius is not spared. Let us look at the local scenario.
A state of confusion
Statistics from the Mauritius Examinations Syndicate (MES) paint an alarming picture for Mauritius. Here is the situation:
CPE. In 2005, the percentage of pass was 73.20, while in 2016, the figure was 76.96. The drop-out at first sitting rate is around 25%.
SC. In 2005, the pass rate was 79.02, and dropped to 72.43 in 2015. What is alarming with the SC results is that in 2016, only 50.39% obtained a credit in English, 47.75% in Math, 60.18% in Chemistry and 55.33% in Biology.
HSC. The pass rate was 78.17 in 2005, but dropped to 75.38 in 2015.
(Note: These statistics are available on the Mauritius Examinations Syndicate website).
The above statistics do not call for a celebration. While the system favours and celebrates a few “laureates” with so much pomp and ceremony with speeches painting a shiny picture of the system, the reality is that it works for a few, and those who do not make it are trapped. There are pockets of underdevelopment in the country where parents have few choices for their children. When they drop out, the cycle simply continues. It is a tragedy when so much talents get wasted away. Parents blame the school, and the system puts the focus on the parents, so that schools get off the hook. Indeed, parents have a key role to play, but they are helpless when they don’t have a voice in influencing policy decisions. Those who brag about educational reforms are the product of a system which favoured them. For them, the debate is on achievement. When a child does well, it calls for celebration. Failure is a symptom.
The state of confusion is compounded by a curriculum that is highly structured with knowledge compartmentalised into small units. The focus on achievement and examinations has produced a system that crams mundane knowledge to pass examinations. The lack of social skills, critical thinking, and responsible citizenship is undermined. Schools have become like factories and many critics are calling for an abolition of schools and an elimination of an abusive and oppressive system.
Teachers and teaching
Almost anyone with a formal credential like a degree, diploma or equivalent finds a way into the classroom.  Teacher education is poor. The usual dictum is: “you have a degree in maths, so get a job in a college, start teaching and give private tuition, you will be happy”. The begging question is: are teachers adequately trained to teach and do they have the tools to do their job? The MES examinations results are indicative of a major hole in the system, namely, the lack of well-informed trained teachers. But then, if the system itself needs to be reinvented, the entire fault should not be on teachers. They are part of a larger problem.
In the Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire, the well-known educator and philosopher, aptly describes the school as a bank where knowledge is deposited, and sees teachers as depositors and students as receptors, thereby changing humans into objects. Freire in his analysis expounds the flaws in modern education which has taken an oppressive character. Thus, he calls for a liberating educational practice that negates the false realities of the classroom. The teacher does not merely reiterates the mundane, but cultivates the minds of the learners who become participants rather than passive objects. The learner is not a spectator but a creator. Freire, whose ideas have shaped modern educational practice, argues that the teacher must liberate the self, before engaging in the classroom. But the modern schooling system has put so much pressure on the teacher that teaching itself has become a mechanical exercise.
Reforming the system
Changing one piece or replacing it with another name is not educational reform. Policy-makers are good at inventing solutions that often are more harmful and detrimental. A system that is based on achievement will continue to create inequality. When private schools operate in parallel with the public system like in the United States, it becomes a question of affordability. Those who can afford to pay opt out of the public system which continues to bleed, and “fixed” with band-aid solutions. Reforms require fundamental changes at societal level. A child that goes to school without a decent nutritious breakfast is not likely to be a high achiever. The schools in the rural and socially deprived areas reflect the kind of inequality that persists. From infrastructure, resources to sanitation, these schools merely exist. Who is doing the inspection and what is the role of the inspectorate? This issue is rarely brought up. Some private colleges reflect a similar scenario. A national system of education with a national curriculum should not allow such discrepancies. All children should be given the same opportunity. The top institutions that produce the “laureates” are in fact the elite colleges.
To radical critics of modern schooling, there is an urgent need to review the function of the school and the way instruction is delivered. At the policy level, reforms have to be conducted in partnership with all the stakeholders. The current system is simply not working in the favour of the majority. There is constant denial that modern schooling has failed. Those who have seen the shortcomings of modern schooling, have moved away to a more student focused progressive system, doing away with formal structured examinations to building social skills and competencies. Where the school is controlled by power and ideology, a liberal approach is not on the agenda.
Mauritius is still dwelling with a system that is outdated and rigid. The factory-like approach is churning youngsters who are lost by the time they turn eighteen. The national examinations reflect the realities. Over fifty percent of teachers must be retrained in modern pedagogy and educational practices. A system that favours formal credentials, it has failed to produce teachers that are valued and respected for what they do like in countries such as Finland. It is scary to think of a teacher with inadequate training in teaching and learning who shows up to teach at a rural college. The system is therefore characterised by mediocrity, incompetence and bureaucracy.
Abolishing schools may not be the ultimate solution, at least, the idea itself is worthy to start the debate on the shortcomings of modern schooling and to think of alternative educational practices. Modern complex societies are at such an advanced stage of development that schools are permanent structures. That does prevent reforms aimed at dismantling oppressive and abusive practices. Inequality will still persist, at least it will be minimised creating more chances for those who cannot succeed in the current system. A critical review of current policy and practices are needed to formulate an alternative model. To remove one system and replacing it with another which is even more oppressive is not answer.
The debate on education and reforms in Mauritius has lost its essence. The focus has shifted to a battle of ideologies as opposed to an analysis of educational practices. When “laureates” are glorified, it shows how an unequal system is allowed to continue with the blessing of the elite. A handful of “laureates” is not an indicator of a success. When will the drop-out issue make in on the national agenda?