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Equal Education Without Unbridled Competition: How?

16.01.2006

Below is an article by Lindsey Collen for Lalit, published in L'Express of 16 January, 2006 on the education debate.



When Jean Claude de L'Estrac in his Sunday editorial says: "Chez les dirigeants travaillistes, on fait l'analyse que l'ancien systeme a produit la nouvelle bourgeoisie d'Etat et sert parfaitement ses interests. Ce qui est vrai.", he is the first commentator to show an understanding of the class forces propelling so many of the protagonists in the debate. In Lalit, we will pick up from here, and expose some of the material reality behind the different points of view.

Mr. De L'Estrac says another thing we agree with: "J'hesite a utiliser le mot mais c'est le mot juste: il s'agit d'un 'genocide' pedagogique." Indeed, the Government plan is a second genocide for which the Mauritian State is responsible in education: the first is language genocide. We mention it because it is crucial to any education debate because the mother tongue is the only efficient means of cognition of humans. Obeegadoo's education reform went in the direction of mitigating both forms of genocide.

But, to come to the class forces.

There are superficial interests that must be made visible first, so that we can discuss ways of addressing them. If there is selection at the CPE level, primary school teachers, not just Mr. Tengur and Mr. Seegum, but the entire sub-class, get a massive increase in their income, through the private lesson racket. This is a harsh economic reality when prices are rising fast, and primary teachers are not well paid. If selection is after Form V, then secondary school teachers, not just Mr. Parahouty, but the whole sub-class of Form III -V teachers can expect significant material gain. The Form VI teachers, of course, have got guaranteed extra income from lessons due to the fight for scholarships to university.

Then there are the class questions referred to by Mr. de L'Estrac. In Mauritius, education is seen by parents not as a means of developing intellectual and creative potential in all the children of the land, but as a means by which their own personal child/ren can pull their family up a social ladder and, as Ms. Bunwaree puts it, "out of poverty". So, the question often becomes: From which precise area of Mauritian society will the petty-bourgeois elite come from? Towns? Villages? In what proportion? The children of an existing elite or children selected by competition? And, of course, the education issue has been dogged by communalo-religious sub-texts, partly because, in reality, the Catholic Church has had a substantial role in national education, and the Catholic religion is not the religion of everyone in Mauritius. This issue became explosive at the time when Jean Claude de L'Estrac himself was Minister because the MSM-MMM government set up a hideous back-to-back communal trade-off which at the time we described as a time-bomb with two fuses waiting to be lit: The Church got to choose 50% of its intake and those in favour of Oriental languages got to see them counted for ranking. A 10 year battle ensued. Dangerous communal fires were fuelled. First one side "won" both of the parts of the trade-off: the Courts said that there was not illegal discrimination in the 50% selection by the Church, and Oriental languages could not be considered for ranking. The Church jubilated. After long Court cases, mainly battled through by Mr. Tengur, the opposite side won both parts of the trade-off: the discrimination on religious grounds was indeed illegal, and there is no reason for an extra subject not to be counted for ranking. Supporters of Mr. Tengur then jubilated.

But Mr. Tengur's victory was to become a Phyrric one. His battle had been centred on the inclusion of Oriental languages in the ranking system and the admission procedures into star colleges of state and church.

And then, because, at this point in history, Minister Obeegadoo found himself in a delicate situation, and he had few escape routes, he chose to run forwards, in the direction of progress: his reform would do away with ranking and diminish competition, and also regionalize intakes while getting more schools built really fast.

However, there were two inter-related tragic flaws to his reform, destabilizing it from the start. These two flaws opened up the way for the Government to unravel Obeegadoo's reform after taking it up as an issue during the general election campaign. First, the selection criteria of "distance" of the home from a school (rather than regionalization) poses a form of discrimination against the country-side, as the schools with both good traditions and nearby cultural facilities are in the towns. To diminish the effect of this, Obeegadoo turned the high prestige colleges into Form VI Colleges. Then the second crack in his edifice came about and opened up this first one: the Church pulled its four "Star Schools" out. St Esprit, St Joseph, the Loretto Convents in Quatre Bornes and Port Louis would remain Form I - VI Colleges. And, of course, Church schools continue to be wholly funded by the State, while they assure places to those living nearby in Curepipe, Quatre Bornes and Port Louis for the 50% off the Government list, on the one hand, and to more-or-less whoever they want, if you closely study their new "non-discriminatory" criteria, for the other 50%, on the other hand.

There is bound to be a reaction. And this is what we are suffering now.

But, the real class issue is a much broader one than just the choosing of the intellectual elite, much broader than just getting some families out of poverty through education. And this is where the debate often becomes very hollow. This very hollowness brings a level of irrationality that, in turn, breeds further dangers.

Any talk about "inequality in education" or the "iniquities of competition", when not accompanied by at least some form of questioning of "inequality in society" or "the general iniquity of competition" sound hypocritical. And the reason it sounds hypocritical is that it is hypocritical.

We need ways of bringing more equality to education, ways of "niveler par le haut". And we need it to be done in the intellectual framework of questioning class inequality at one and the same time. Even if education can be made equal first, before society becomes more equal, the question of social inequality must be posed, in order to give coherence to our ideas. How come we talk inequality in education without questioning how it is that this child's parents have got a home, a well-paid job, books, good food, fashionable clothes, computers in every room while that child's parents live in one room, have insecure badly paid work, and no time to spend with their children? How come one child's parents are out there looking for humans to "give work to" and another child's parents are begging other humans to "give him a job" ... and we don't even question these two distinctly different and intimately related social realities?

The Gokhool Reform is overtly based on the premise that because society is unequal, and he assumes this will always be the case, and because education is the way that families can get a lottery-chance to rise out of poverty, we need to have the fairest way of seeing who gets to rise into the intellectual classes. Especially, his reform argues, so as to respond to globalization when top jobs are now "international". So, what is the fairest way? An examination. When Mr. de L'Estrac says this is one part of the Labour politics that is not "democratization", we would say that, on the contrary, it claims to be exactly the same kind of "democratization" as what they propose for the economy i.e. to create the possibility for a very few more families in addition to those already "there" to rise into the economic elite i.e. to continue the iniquitous process of families climbing up a social class on the backs of their very own child. And it is on this ground that we do not agree with Labour's very own type of "democratization".

Lalit, like most people do, thinks education for all children should be of an equally high standard. Not just because children are special, and they are. But because equality itself is a basic human aspiration to which we are working. We think competition should be discouraged in education. Again not just because it is bad for children, but because we think unbridled competition is a negative and oppressive phenomenon glorified by capitalism at the expense of genuine human cooperation.

A PROGRAM

So, most of us want equality in education. Most of us want to limit competition amongst our children.

But how do we get there?

We need a program that has a dynamic towards more equality in education. How do we raise the standard of all schools, and how do we do it fast?

What we have in our favour at the moment is that for the first time in Mauritian history the capitalist economy, which used to demand that a selection be made of administrators and professionals, leaving the rest to work in foul conditions in fields, factories and hotels, is now demanding high education.

In Lalit we are re-orienting our existing proposals now that we have absorbed what exactly it is that the Government is proposing. We still do not understand what form of selection Mr. Gokhool has in mind. But we say:

No return to ranking.

M. Uteem has taken up one of our proposals. All university scholarships should be awarded on a regional basis. Every college should get its quota. This would have a dynamic of equalizing colleges.

The mother tongue must be used as medium for maths, science, social studies and additional language-learning. This will immediately raise the cognition standards of ALL pupils, and develop nimble and creative thinkers not rote-learners.

Intake to all colleges should be regional but without the "distance" from the school being considered. Where there is a rush to any one school, as can be expected in the very short term, there should be a quota allotted to applicants with best grades from each primary school in the region. This will bring a doubly dynamic effect. Because scholarships for university will be shared out equally amongst all schools, schools will soon all have standards raised to the highest previous level. (Think this through slowly, and you will agree.) And most important of all, because intake into initially prized secondary schools will include an element of a quota per primary school within a region, primary schools will all raise their standards. (Imagine which primary schools may become sought after by the very parents who have the ability to improve the standards of a school! Imagine the change in the PTA meetings there.) The concept of "mixed ability" intake in the BEC Colleges already points in this direction.

The equalization of schools should go hand-in-hand with wonderful improvements in pedagogy and the curriculum at every level.

But it is important to remember that it is not intellectually feasible to be against competition in the only part of society in which there is social mobility (i.e. in education) without at the same time challenging class inequality itself. If one does adopt this position, it means one is in favour of a caste system i.e. a class system without social mobility at all.

Lindsey Collen

for LALIT, 15 January, 2006