The Minister of Education has announced the introduction of the Nine-Year Schooling and the abolition of the CPE examination. This news must be music to the ears not only of pupils who are under so much pressure to perform well to gain entry into an elite school but also to parents. But is the music as melodious and soothing as it sounds? More importantly, will the new initiative reduce the present fierce competition at primary level and all its accompanying woes?
Mauritius has attempted a number of reforms in educational assessment over the years: the junior scholarship and the PSLC exams were replaced by the CPE, the format of which was changed and reformed in 1994 in accordance with the philosophy of competency based testing. The Master Plan of Education published in 1990s laid the basis for further reforms. Since then, there have been a lot of discussions by politicians and others but despite numerous papers from all quarters, nothing really concrete has materialised. For although discussions abound in Mauritius, proposed reforms depend on the good will of the ruling government and its appointees.
A national assessment at Form III level can be a very positive step forward, a blessing even and it is by no means a new subject. It is a golden opportunity to get rid of the CPE dinosaur. Nearly 40% of those taking the CPE examination are classified as failures every year. Not many countries in the world subject their children and their society to such pressures and economic and human waste. And now that we have sufficient secondary schools to accommodate all the pupils, there is absolutely no justification for a competitive end of primary examination. Our pupils deserve better; every child matters in this world irrespective of whether he/she is an under-achiever or high-achiever. Since there are enough “good” secondary schools in each region, we can at long last get rid of the infamous CPE, have school based assessment and send the children to their regional schools for Form 1. Measures can then be taken for a properly set up, valid and reliable national assessment at Form III level to help channel our pupils into the stream, academic or technical, most suited to their abilities and interests. After all, education is not only about achieving higher grades and obtaining certificates but is also to do with personal development.
The main purposes of the National Form III Assessment can be twofold: (i) eliminate the present pressure at primary level, reduce private tuition and competition at this young age and (ii) indicate what direction to follow. The outcome of the Form III Assessment would help to decide what route the pupils will end up following. One of the important advantages of having the national assessment at the end of Form III is that around 40% of our children will not be identified as failures at the tender age of 11. With proper feedback and remediation all along the different grades, those who are less gifted academically should be able to find an alternative path to fulfilment and success. This is logical, sensible and feasible and more importantly in the interest of the children and it is being successfully done in many other countries including Singapore.
What is being proposed?
The CPE is to be replaced by the Primary School Achievement Certificate (PSAC) and performance in this examination will determine entry in the best regional colleges. Is this not merely a change of appellation leaving intact almost the entire present system with its stress and rat race? What is the rationale for having an end of primary school examination and what is the expected outcome?
Form 111 assessment is a golden opportunity to get rid of the long obsolete Standard 6 examination – under any name – once and for all and thereby reducing pressure on parents and pupils. And with proper implementation of remedial education, the need for private tuition can be drastically reduced. The children following the academic route will remain in the same college while those on a technical route will move to a technical institution. Those successful at the School Certificate level and wanting to complete Higher School Certificate levels will move to a Form VI school. There could even be a path for late developers from the technical strand and/or for those who want to join the academic stream and show the ability to do so.
But the proposed initiative means that a pupil will not only end up attending three schools but may end up taking up to four competitive examinations, one every 2/3 years after the PSAC examination. Our pupils will end up being assessed and examined during their whole school career while our teachers will be bogged down in assessing, marking and recording. Is this academically and pedagogically right? When will the teachers do what they are paid to do, that is teaching?
For the proposed initiative to be successful, a number of questions/issues need to be addressed urgently prior to its implementation:
What percentage of the school based assessment will be used to calculate the final grade of Form 111?
Will there be special remedial classes with specially trained remedial teachers? Will the pupils be removed from their respective classes? Or will the teachers be providing remediation? If so, who will be looking after the other pupils? Have the teachers been provided with training in remediation?  Who will provide training in remediation to the teachers?
What mechanism will be in place to show that all the children being assessed by their teachers have acquired all the necessary competencies? How will the ministry ensure similar standards across the country?
What arrangements have been made for children with Special Educational Needs?
When will the teachers be trained in the new assessment procedures?
How will the Ministry make sure that the assessments are valid, reliable and fit for purpose?
What mechanism will be in place to monitor the implementation of the new initiative? Will the teachers be responsible or is there going to be an independent body (QCA in UK) set up for the monitoring exercise?
Pupils will be admitted to Form 1 on the basis of results, parental choice and location. How will the Ministry deal with oversubscribed colleges?
There will be a national examination at Form 111. That is a second competitive examination in three years to gain entry in a star school?
Who will be responsible for the setting and marking of the Form 111 papers? Have the teachers been trained for the Form 111 examinations?
Have the question papers for Form 111 been formulated and tested? How will the results be recorded and validated? How will the ministry make sure that the results are reliable and comparable across the country?
Pupils may have to change schools after completing Form 111 to be in one of the star schools. This presents a pedagogical problem. Since all pupils will not be of the same level, how will teachers in the star schools handle this inequality? Has provision been made by the Ministry?
One of the main reasons for introducing this initiative was to get rid of cut-throat competition and stop pupils from taking excessive private tuition. With entry in ‘good’ schools to be based on good results, competition would become fiercer and private tuition would be on the increase. Is this the objective of the ministry?
Proposed formula
There should be no formal examination till Form 111 but closely monitored teacher-based assessment with a mechanism set up to ensure that the children have achieved all the essential competencies before they move to the next class and to ensure similar/comparable standards across the country.
Specialist teachers in every school to assist teachers to assess the pupils on a regular basis to identify weaknesses and provide remediation as and when required.
Make class size manageable and make all schools have the same facilities and infrastructure.
Give teachers the respect they deserve by paying them a decent salary. Reward them on performance.
Set up a professional body like the General Teaching Council which will be responsible for maintaining conduct, standards and deciding the quality of training.
After primary schooling, pupils attend one of the regional colleges where they sit the National Examination. If they are academically fit, they continue in the same college to complete their School Certificate and Higher School Certificate examinations. If the pupils are to follow the Vocational/ technical route, they attend one of the star colleges which will be converted into Technical colleges.
The proposed formula, short, simple, manageable and easy to implement will banish the CPE for good and allow the pupils to at least attend schools fruitfully and happily up to Form 111.
To conclude, the idea of introducing Nine Year Schooling has been on the cards for many years. It is a good initiative if planned, implemented and monitored properly and with genuine interest for the children.
Will the latest initiative change our education for the better? I can’t help wondering why this initiative which was thought of in 1992, did not take off then. There is no doubt this initiative was well thought of and had the backing of a number of experts (national and international) but a lot has changed since in the area of assessment and examinations and we need to take on board these changes. As an analogy, would we buy a car which was manufactured in 1992 now or would we go for the latest model with the latest specifications and features like GPS, USB, reversing camera and Bluetooth features?