Professor Sheila Bunwaree

Debates on the Government Programme will start very soon. My hope is that some courageous, enlightened parliamentarians, driven by ethics, will  show independent  thinking to interrogate the piecemeal ‘failed’ educational reform of the MSM – a ‘reform’ which contrary to popular discourses of ‘no child left behind’  actually leaves large

Sheila Bunwaree

segments of our youth behind. Will our parliamentarians dare speak the truth? Barring our 15-17 year olds from pursuing their educational trajectory, has resulted in growing anxiety and frustration amongst many families. Will our legislators be willing to analyse the education scene in a non-partisan manner and tell those concerned that a dogmatic approach to educational policy making will impact negatively on a small resource poor, multi-ethnic country like ours, where each ‘unit of human capital’ counts? Will the authorities be prepared to open their eyes to the ‘in – and out of – school processes’ affecting our children’s performance? Will they inspire themselves from what is happening elsewhere to rethink educational policy before our education turns into a national disaster? Offering hot meals in some deprived schools, free text books and free tertiary education may be helpful but insufficient to address the fundamental weaknesses of our education system, particularly its highly inequitable nature.

Singapore has decided to rehaul its education system by revisiting the worth of exams and has abolished ranking. Singapore’s Minister of Education, Ony Ye Kung says that learning is not a competition. In an interview granted to the Guardian recently, Finnish Head Master Kari Kivinen tells us: ‘Thinking critically, fact-checking, interpreting and evaluating all the information you receive, wherever it appears, is crucial and we have made it a core part of what we teach across all subjects….’. The way teachers encourage and develop creativity in Estonian schools is becoming a world reference. No wonder that these countries are toppers in the OECD PISA tests.

Speaking at the Davos meeting earlier this year, Jack Ma, former head of ALIBABA, argued that we have to change the way we teach our children in order to differentiate humans from AI. He emphasised the 3 Qs needed for success: EQ, IQ and LQ. He noted that education needs to change its key performance indicators, namely exams. Here, not only are we stuck with the old-fashioned Cambridge exams but continue to allow the latter drive the curriculum. In so doing, we fail to prepare our children for the complex and uncertain world unfolding around us. In his book ‘Seven Complex Lessons in Education for the Future’, Edgar Morin emphasises the need for a holistic approach to education – one which is grounded in the environment we live in. He also calls for values and methods necessary to respond to the challenges of an increasingly complex world. Are we doing enough to confront these challenges? Can we envisage the introduction of some form of ecopedagogy in our schools?

However, inspiring ourselves from other places and the work of well-known scholars will be meaningless without consultation with ALL stakeholders, inclusive of our children, the main consumers of education. There exists a burgeoning scholarly literature which regards children’s voices as a potentially productive force in educational reform. I have no doubt that the Ombudsperson for Children will concur with us!

Equating the question of 5 credits to ‘quality education’ and high standards is an erroneous approach to education. Key factors determining quality of education include the quality of teachers, curriculum standards, infrastructure, administration, school leadership amongst others. Assessing these in a truthful manner is necessary.

Poor Performance?

Certain TRUTHS can partly explain the poor performance of our students. The TRUTH is that

Our preprimary schools and crèches are of such ‘disparate’ nature that those attending the poorer quality schools continue to be at a disadvantage as they move up the educational ladder. Correlation between exposure in the early years and kinds of achievement later is well established.

Large numbers of teachers entering the profession do so by default. They often lack motivation. Low morale within certain sections of the teaching community is detrimental to our children.

The teaching profession rarely attracts those with excellent grades and great oral skills in English or French.

Students often grapple with problems related to broken homes, conflictual families, domestic violence, drugs and alcohol. Teachers are not trained to work with children living in disadvantage.

Important numbers of children come from poor families having health conditions reflective of poor nutrition and hence their under-achievement.

Curriculum remains exam-driven and curricular choice remains restrictive, thus not allowing for an optimal use of talent.

(7) The curriculum is often determined by a bureaucratic elite. Teachers – the real transmitters of knowledge having little say on knowledge-control. Moreover, the one and same curriculum is offered to all children inclusive of the those in the Extended Programme, rendering the ‘Education for All’ concept meaningless.

(8) The system often demands of our children what many of them do not possess : cultural and linguistic capital, thus resonating with Pierre Bourdieu’s Theory of  Reproduction of Inequality.

(9) Language issue and medium of instruction remain a problem which continues to lead to the marginalization and exclusion of large numbers of our children.

(10) Private tuition has become an industry and to some a ‘necessary evil’. Will we ever be able to regulate this business when certain occult forces operate and continue to influencing those in the corridors of power.

Of course, factors such as children spending too much time on social media, indiscipline, poor parenting etc can also be responsible for children’s poor academic performance. But emphasis on these without addressing some of the blatant truths and the pervasive structural inequality is tantamount to ‘blaming the victim’. This will certainly not get us to where we want as a nation.

Implications of a Poor

Educational Reform

Our goal is to become a high income, inclusive and green economy but if we continue to allow so much waste and inefficiency to persist, we will not attain it. UNESCO consultant/educationalist Teeluck Bhuwanee is right in stating that some 6 billion rupees is going down the drain.  In 2001, I published a research paper titled: ‘The Marginal in the Miracle-Human Capital in Mauritius’ in the International Journal of Educational Development, where I argued that investments made in our education is not earning us the expected returns and that there is a need for a new educational order. Many years have gone by but we have still not been able to fix the problems.

One in four of our young people is without jobs and if things are left as they are with some decision-makers persistently thinking that our children will automatically develop an interest in technical fields overnight and find relevant jobs, we will head towards very difficult times. We are in fact sitting on kegs of powder.

The inability of our economy to move fast enough to new technically-oriented sectors, science and technology with its gender biases remaining poor in our schools, contribute to a big lack of opportunity. The latter is largely responsible for the growing disaffection and alienation among our youth. Generation after generation cannot continue to lose access to choice and the possibility of hope and progress. And when this is more pronounced within certain ethnic groups, social cohesion and peace are threatened.

Left alone, government does not readily admit difficulties or acknowledge problems; it tends to defend its actions at all costs, sometimes even turning into an ego exercise. If citizens give up and/or become ‘roder bout’ and choose not to ask for accountability, the slow pace of advance will never be sufficient to put our small island state on the right track for a more equal and sustainable future.

What we need most urgently is: ‘Les Assises de l’éducation’ where all stakeholders sit at the same table and agree to push for interdisciplinary policy- oriented educational research. Policy makers should however be ready to allow research findings to inform their decisions, rather than continue to operate in a vacuum and allow an elitist system to perpetuate itself.