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Lindsey Collen on Education in Mauritius


Below is an interview of LALIT member, Lindsey Collen by Nicholas Rainer in L'Express Friday 12 February. Originally in the hard copy newspaper and also available on .

Our education system is often described as being elitist. Yet it's free and thus accessible to everyone. How do you explain this paradox?
This reflects Mauritius being a very unequal society. So that, when the 1975 student uprising put such immense pressure on the Labour Government that it brought in free secondary education, the State paid the different levels of existing student fees. So colleges stayed unequal. Then, densely populated areas of Port Louis and Rose-Hill where there were good primary schools became office districts, leaving primary schools with fewer children in their areas. So, parents who are debruyar in nearby, say, Plaisance or Roche Bois, do all the complicated demars to get their children into them. They then help PTA's keep the schools "good", and they pay for private lessons, giving teachers there "double pay". The children get places in "good" colleges because, after coaching and rote-learning in lessons, their results are "better". Poorer parents who work longer hours in insecure jobs and single parent families, end up congregating in the schools in Plaisance and Roche Bois. A downward spiral. Ambitious teachers avoid the schools because there is no lesson money, and there is some collusions in the higher echelons, where inspectors obviously like to show "good" results in their own areas.

What's your opinion of government's decision to reform the scholarship system in order to give scholarships to more students?
It is clearly important to give more students scholarships to study for their first degrees in Mauritius . Perhaps more important is that, by introducing regional quotas, standards will rise in all colleges. The recently announced laureates already indicate this tendency. So the decision is a good one. A system of regional quotas has long been a LALIT campaign, precisely because of its dynamics towards higher levels of education everywhere.

The debate over the introduction of kreol in schools is more heated than ever. Why does the subject polarize opinion to such an extent?
The interesting thing is that a SOFRES survey from March last year shows that two-thirds of people are in favour of the introduction of Kreol in school. This is despite the same survey showing that over 80% of people have no idea that there are already dictionaries, a harmonized orthography, courses at the University and Pre-Voc BEC.
How does this status quo remain, despite 2/3 being in favour of the mother tongue? It is because higher earners, powerful people, are those against the change. I assume they believe that it gives their children some advantage. They intend well. They think the mother tongue helps only the poorer students. Which is false. So, it is the elite that needs educating on the language issue. This process of educating the elite is the polarization we are seeing in debate. It is healthy. All studies, in fact, show that the use of the mother tongue helps all children think better. It's as simple as that. And, the LPT Hearing last October proved beyond all doubt that all children are actually harmed by the suppression of the mother tongue in schools. This is serious. Once we know we are doing our children harm, we must stop. It is obviously very difficult for parents when they give their children their lunch basket and send them to school to accept that they are harming them. And for teachers with years of experience to accept that they have been inflicting harm. But, we can't use this as an excuse for continuing harming children. We have to go through the process of accepting that we have been mistaken. If we are to force a change in Government policy, we have to also get it together to stand up and accuse the authorities of forcing us, as teachers and parents, to inflict harm on the children in our care. This is a very dramatic state of affairs, and explains the passions.

Many people think that the introduction of kreol will be done at the expense of English and French. That's not necessarily the case though, is it?
No, the opposite is true. When children learn through foreign languages, they learn only basic interpersonal communicative skills. In order to achieve cognitive-academic language proficiency, children need to learn in their mother tongue. Whatever they learn at this high level, is then easily transferred into high level English and French. A good part of this high level language proficiency is common to all languages. It is shared. In fact, all the research seems not to have sunk in at that bit of Reduit called MIE.

Another argument frequently employed by those who are against the use of kreol is that it's not a "mature" enough language yet. Is this accusation founded?
The "language" is as mature as any other. All linguists know this. Its written form, however, needs an immense amount of work to be done at the same time as it is being introduced. A fine grammar by someone like Prof. Dany Adone. Huge amounts more literature. A team doing terminology standardization. A team doing translation of basic texts. A team recording spoken language and studying it. Books, magazines, leaflets, encyclopaedias. On-line studies of all kinds in Kreol. There is certainly a lot of work to be done. But it can be done fast if we can find ways to pull everyone into this creative process, as Dr. Carpooran has already done with hundreds of students working on the Dictionary.
What does the high rate of failure in the CPE exams say about the current system?
The strange U-curve the MES has discovered, shows that children not understanding at school means too many fail and "too many" learn by rote.

Ideally, what type of education system would like to see put into place?
Education should build on the basic curiosity of children, on their love of learning, of exploring, of working things out, of building things, of making things. Teachers would, in this kind of system, love their work, and once well trained, get fantastic job satisfaction every day.