* “A complete failure or very serious problem in which many mistakes or problems happen at the same time” (Cambridge English Dictionary)
Education is free in Mauritius – accessible to, and even enforced upon, all those under the age of sixteen. A privilege whose value I disregard not in this reflection. I am not criticizing what is not good enough, but rather what could be better.
Mathematics, Design, Accounts and Economics, languages and the sciences. A choice of subjects that rarely expands beyond those above. Subjects that, otherwise, might have been interesting to explore but lose all their attraction when one is faced with rereading the same boring litany a thousand times over in preparation for an exam. Subjects that count for the whole of a student’s education, often indivisible into their smaller components. It is almost unbelievable – fifty years after independence, for a developing country on the brink of being classified as developed- how very limited the spectrum of knowledge offered at school is. Photography and cinematography, 3D art, creative writing and astronomy; if only to cite a fraction of a fraction of what we are missing. A system perpetuated by high level officials who care little about the gratification of students at school or about their learning experience. A system that has barely changed in decades and will, most probably, not change for decades to come.
And, of course: Standardized testing, the titan that has risen to an immutable barrier in many a student’s secondary education. The Cambridge examinations, glorious end to our thirteen years of education in Mauritius, are recognized internationally, and thus offer students from our island admission to foreign universities.
A remnant of colonization – let us not forget the pure senselessness of English examinations towering over every other discipline, such that, if one were to fail in that subject, they would fail in all subjects. But that is another matter. A system that, despite its acclaim, serves little more than as a means to hone our memorisation skills. Essential aspects of a well-rounded education are overlooked in favour of the attainment of good grades. Our curriculum and the pedagogy (or lack thereof) are moulded accordingly. So, except if you’re a sudden genius that can somehow tell me the uses of sulfuric acid, or the fourth most important property of a clinical thermometer, or the speed of an inkjet printer, passing these types of tests with a respectable score would require one to cram their mind with whole books in preparation. Sleepless nights, stress, headaches; barely the tip of the iceberg.
This weight in students’ daily life serves to strain their ability of reflexion outside of the cramped box that their education demand that they fit into. Creativity is stifled, ambition reduced to fitting in within the moneymaking legionnaires of the state. Success and status – defined by power and wealth – the only discernible goals. Artistry, innovation and individualism devolve into children’s games, or practices relegated under the Hobbies section of a CV. One evidence of this need for academic success is the cult of the laureate in Mauritius, a direct result of our education system that perpetuates elitism. Another off-shoot of our examinations-obsessed system is private tuition, an over-extending parallel to public education – a nigh essential part of the system. Both students and parents believe that without private tuition, true potential cannot be achieved. When an auxiliary fee-paying education becomes a necessity, is public education really free? Is it still a success if it does not, in itself, cater for the needs of its students?
The Scandinavian and the American high school systems, while both far from perfect, are the most obvious comparisons. The latter offers all the courses I mentioned earlier, but in a way that breaks down subjects into units. One can take a chosen course for a number of credits. Credits which are then accumulated towards a certificate. The courses may last for a semester, or three years, depending on the student. In this way, a student is not limited to a certain discipline and is free to explore their personal interests.
Scandinavian secondary education is, akin to Mauritius’s, quite restricted in this regard. While they offer few choices, most of which are similar to those we study here, their system allows for a much greater flexibility in terms of time restraints and pedagogy. What I seek to take from their academic culture is the emphasis on creativity and critical thinking. A system that asserts effectiveness over learning by heart, that inspires and drives curiosity rather than creating conformists. That demands not of its students that they wake up at 6 every morning or devote their afternoons to reiterative homework, or sit with 60 other pupils for private tuitions.
Data from the Mauritius Examinations Syndicate show that 50% of students who took the Certificate of Primary Education examinations (now defunct) in 2011 (around 18000) made it to the Higher School Certificate in 2018 (around 9000), not taking into consideration repeaters. The pass rate for the Higher School Certificate in 2018 was 75%.
Quite honourable, if we overlook that this pass rate refers to those (38%) who manage to make it from CPE to HSC. A deeper look into students’ performance in HSC shows that in most subjects, the majority of students achieve grades D or E. How do we reverse this trend, so more students can complete their education from primary school to secondary school with higher grades?
I understand that our education system is under a reform. Long in coming, that required dozens of compounding factors for action to be considered. And still, are these not the symptoms being fought, instead of the disease. Are we not merely tweaking details, while feeding the elephant in the room?