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FIJIAN EDUCATION: lost between the crocodiles, the ostriches and sacred cows [The Fiji Times, 18 January 1997 and 20 January 1997]

29/03/2012

It has become an annual ritual, for the public to express concern over the poor performance of indigenous Fijian students in education.  Most of these concerns have been expressed by educationists and researchers over the years.  Some salient facts were also pointed out in a series of articles I wrote for the Fiji Times in January 1995.

Nevertheless, encouraged by the absence of comprehensive data and indisputable conclusions, the myths and dubious recommendations keep surfacing, year after year.

The Ministry of Education, while trying to tackle the problems, keeps getting battered, often unfairly, by Fijian leaders, organisations and the Fijian public, many of whom are part of the problem.

Most importantly, there is no mechanism in place to force Fijian schools, principals, teachers and students to go on to a learning curve so as to ensure that there is genuine improvement in Fijian education over time.

It is unfortunate therefore, that five key recommendations in my 1995 articles have not been acted upon: (1) to have a comprehensive national empirical study that lays the full facts before the Fijian community (2) the adoption of a policy of multi-ethnic schools  (3) Fijian leadership to tackle head-on, the Fijian cultural “sacred cows” that undermine Fijian education, (4) the ending of racial divisions in education, including the amalgamation of the two teachers’ unions, and (5) the fostering of open academic competition amongst schools through league tables, published annually.

This article outlines some of the issues on which the public need to be given hard data by the Ministry of Education, so that the myths are laid to rest and people stop looking for scapegoats when their own houses are not in order.

The articles suggests why there needs to be action on the other recommendations, in particular, the need to introduce open competition into education, if Fijian parents are to be educated and mobilised, to stop the continuing rot in their children’s education.

The Nature of the Problems

Study after study has been done of the problems of Fijian education, focusing on the whole gamut of factors that influence patterns of academic performance.  There is no doubt now a reasonable understanding in the Ministry of Education and the education sector, of the nature of the problems.

There are the usual factors such as laboratory and library resources, teacher qualifications and experience, home environments for students, distances from school, pupil:teacher ratios, etc.

However, there are other factors, such as the performances of principals and teachers, parent and student motivation, and Fijian cultural obligations, which pose intractable problems, because of political reasons.  It is this set of fundamental problems which the authorities seem unable or unwilling to tackle.

My own 1995 study of the Form 7 performance of a select group of secondary schools (Fijian only and multi-ethnic schools) threw up a number of interesting results.

While it was not surprising that at the top were schools such as Natabua, Labasa Secondary, what stood out was thatAdiCakobauSchool(for Fijian girls) was a relatively good performer.

It was also interesting that largely Fijian schools like Lelean (with significant minority of non-Fijians), did much better than the elite male Fijian-only schools of QVS and RKS, which were performing dismally.

It was also apparent that in each school, while the Fijian students performed less well than the others, their performance in the multi-ethnic schools were much better than that in the Fijians-only schools.

In fact, average marks for Fijians tended upwards towards the average marks of the non-Fijian students in the same school.  It would be difficult to discount the factors of competition, peer group pressures, and influence of good principals and teachers.

A cursory look at the published 1996 secondary school results for Fiji Junior, Form 7 and FSLC, suggests that similar patterns are still at work, at all levels, although detailed empirical analysis is required for before generalisations can be made.

However, if these conclusions are confirmed, then the Ministry of Education needs far more selective and targetted policies than the simplistic solutions that are being recommended by vested interests, such as the Fijian Teachers Association, or less informed members of the public.

Not Just Resources

Financial resources usually have a positive impact on academic performance.  Note, however, that QVS and RKS have traditionally been well resourced, and received the best Fijian students from around the country.

Their continued dismal performances at all levels, suggest that pumping in more money, or sending better students to these schools, will not necessarily pay dividends.

Not Just Ethnicity of Students

It should be noted that while some Fijian schools may not be doing well, this should not be generalised to mean that Fijian students, by and large, are not doing well.  There are bright areas, which give some hope and pointers for action, if we will learn.

Firstly, the relatively better results forAdiCakobauSchoolsuggest that gender is an important factor.  Secondly, the better performances of Fijian students in multi-ethnic schools such as Natabua andLabasaCollege, again suggest that the school environment (principals, teachers, multi-ethnic peer student groups) are important.

GivenFiji’s demographic trends (and the long-term decline in Indo-Fijian student numbers), the future is inevitably going to mix more Fijian students in with others, at the traditionally non-Fijian schools.  Can the Ministry help this trend along by a change in official policy at the Fijians only schools?

On the other side, let us also not forget that the Ministry has always been pressured by (and capitulated) to Fijian Teachers’ Association’s demands that Fijian schools must have Fijian principals, HODS and teachers.  The Ministry has not been free to make appointments in the best academic interests of Fijian students.

Can the FTA honestly say that this has no bearing on the poor performance of the Fijian schools and their students?  Cynics would be forgiven for seeing crocodile tears, in the FTA’s lament on the poor performance of Fijian students, and attributing blame to the Ministry of Education.

Nevertheless, even the FTA members cannot be held solely responsible since teacher qualifications and experience do not completely explain why Fijian students under-perform.

Not Just Principals and Teachers

Firstly, the results indicate that even in the same largely Fijian school, or the better multi-ethnic schools (i.e. with the same teachers and school environments), non-Fijian students still do proportionately better than Fijian students.

Secondly, it should be noted that, despite the emigration of qualified and experienced non-Fijian teachers after 1987, many non-Fijian schools still out-perform even the best of the Fijian schools (many Fijian parents are aware of this and increasingly choose to send their children to non-Fijian schools).

Not Just a Ministry Problem

Critics of the Ministry of Education do not seem to understand that the rot in Fijian education cannot simply be laid at the door of the Ministry.  As education experts keep saying, student motivation and effort, parental guidance and the home and social environment, are crucial factors.

These are beyond the control of the Ministry of Education, even if they do attempt to replicate at the schools, those institutional, management and attitudinal factors which lead to superior academic performance, as for instance at the ACS.

However, year after year, it is pointed out that student motivation, parental support, and better performances by principals and teachers, are not forthcoming from the Fijian schools.  Why do the failures continue, year after year?

  FIJIAN EDUCATION  PART II: 

WHO WILL TACKLE THE SACRED COWS?

  Let me repeat what other educationists have also pointed out: the basic causes of poor Fijian academic performance are deeply rooted social, cultural and political sacred cows which Fijians find difficult, or are unwilling, to tackle.  There is a lot of talk but no action.

I would suggest that open competition amongst schools, principals, teachers and students, is the only lever available to the Ministry of Education and parents, which can force the required improvements in performance in the education sector.

The Sports Sacred Cow

While everyone laments that Fijian students give too much emphasis to sports, what messages do Fijian children get, day in and day out?

Political and social leaders, principals, teachers, parents, corporate sponsors, devote inordinately large amounts of time and money in preparation for annual rugby clashes, or the annual athletics events.  No such attention is given to academic activities.

The media is forever giving prominence to sports heroes, coaches and administrators.  Where is the prominence given to academically excellent students, and good teachers and principals?

What company gives prizes for academic excellence in the local primary and secondary schools, or even nationally?  Even USP has had to cajole companies to give a mere two hundred dollars for academic prizes, while thousands are easily granted to sports.

It is not surprising that Fijian students are focussed on sport, not academic achievement.  So why blame the children?

Fijian Culture and Politics

Perceptive commentators have time and again pointed out the deep cultural obstacles to Fijian development (no one responded to Ronald Gatty, did they?).  These views have relevance to education as well.

Fijian parents all too easily relinquish responsibility for their children to the extended families, who cannot have the same degree of interest in the child’s educational development as the parents.

Children in many (especially rural) schools have a large part of their study time taken up in non-curricular activities such as performing cultural activities, attending to tei teis, and preparing for communal events.

In many Fijian families, an enormous amount of time and effort of the parents are taken up in attending to church activities and fund raising, leading to a virtual neglect of children and their study activities.

Fijians (and others) have also adopted with vengeance, the culture of videos, TV and SKY channels, with sports again being a key factor.  A large proportion of the family’s spare time is now taken up with watching the box.  The typical small sizes of Fijian homes no doubt mean that students will not have a quiet place to study since the interests of the adults will take precedence over those of children.

Parents and children who do not behave in the required fashion, would be accused of losing their “Fijian culture” and (pejoratively) becoming “like the Kai-India”.

Who Will Take on the Sacred Cows?

No doubt there are many strengths in the traditional Fijian communal way of life and culture and some of these strengths must be preserved.  Nevertheless, all traditions must adapt to changing times or become irrelevant, and leaders must help bring about the progressive changes.

But can Fijian leaders advocate openly and strongly that the churches and the chiefs must reduce their demands on peoples’ communal obligations?

Can a Fijian leader tell the FTA that appointments at Fijian schools must be made solely on the basis of teaching or management qualifications, and in the interests of the students, not that of the FTA members alone?

Can a Minister of Education demand that the two teachers’ associations be merged, when the setting up of the FTA was originally encouraged by Government on political grounds.

Indeed, can a Fijian leader advocate that in the interests of Fijian students, all schools become multi-ethnic, when Old Boy networks based on the elite Fijian schools, are at the core of Fijian leadership.

Such reforms seem difficult politically, especially in the post-coup era: after all, the current Constitution itself requires that key management positions for the whole country be restricted to indigenous Fijians; while the SVT restricts its own membership to Fijians only.

Whatever the national politics, however, the reforms must come, if the Government genuinely cares for Fijian education.  This requires a political will and direction that is currently missing.  It is clear that people are having their cake and eating it too.  But non-Fijians (and some Fijians) know that you can’t eat meat and be a vegetarian at the same time.

Dietary cliches aside, let me remind that there is a critical cog missing from Fiji’s education system- there is no mechanism which will ensure that inefficient providers of education services to the Fijian students, are penalised in the “education market”.  Unfortunately, Fijian parents don’t even know what is being done to their children, let alone penalise those responsible.

Need for Open Competition in Education

In accepting economic deregulation, the Fiji Government also implicitly accepts that market competition is the lever that ensures that consumers have a real choice between the products of different sellers, and that inefficient producers are penalised.

The Government expects that in a competitive environment, employers will reward efficient employees (through promotions, increased benefits, etc) and penalise inefficient ones (sacking, pay cuts etc), by using objective indicators such as output or profit.

It is well understood that Fijian sports teams and athletes must compete fairly, and be judged by what they score in games, or the times they run, all measured objectively, and made known to the public.

It is surprising, therefore, that the Ministry of Education refuses to use the one available and powerful lever which can enable the public and the Ministry to force Fijian schools, principals, teachers and students to compete against each other, and be judged on their performance.

Open competition is the only lever that the Ministry has, to force the required improvements in performance in the education sector. Following every examination, the Ministry should publish League Tables ranking schools by key indicators, such as percentages passing and failing, obtaining A Grades, etc.

Why does the Ministry of Education, like ostriches burying their heads in sand, refuse to publish the results of such analyses, as is done everywhere else in the world?  This data ought to be in the public domain: it is not the private property of education administrators or the Ministry.

Is the Ministry of Education afraid that the disastrous results for particular schools and districts will become obvious to angry and frustrated parents; that parents will demand to know why their children were failing; that parents will demand to know who was to be “blamed”?

Of course, the Ministry of Education, school principals and teachers will come under closer scrutiny, and comparisons will be made with other schools, principals and teachers, and with results for previous years.  Of course, parents may demand that heads should roll.

Of course, it also means that Fijian students will have to get the message that just as athletes get a medal only if they are in the top three, they will get a scholarship only if they achieve certain minimum marks.  Without such sanctions, why should any Fijian students work hard if they know they will get a scholarship anyway, or that the Old Boy network will get them a job.

The essence of competitive free markets is that not only are there carrots for the winners, but sticks for the losers.  That is how it should be, if competition is to force improvements out of all those involved in education, including the students.

The Ministry must come to terms, in all humility, with the reality that the problems of Fijian education are too big to be handled by a few education administrators, however dedicated and hard-working.

The Ministry must free up the market forces and mobilise the energies of parents, good principals and teachers.  This will not occur unless the public are given the full facts about Fijian academic performance, however unpalatable, and sanctions are applied against those not performing.

Other Time Bombs Ticking Away

The public needs to keep in mind that the public keeps measuring (and comparing) Fijian performance relative to that of Indo-Fijians.   There are no absolute standards being applied.

However, this “ruler” is itself weakening, if the decline in standards amongst all students (including Indo-Fijians) at USP, is anything to go by (another story).  The situation for Fijians is probably worse than it seems.

There is another time bomb ticking away inFiji. There is evidence (also kept from the public by the Ministry of Education) that large proportions ofFiji’s primary school children are going through school without adequate skills in literacy and numeracy: our children can’t read, write or add and subtract.

When this time bomb explodes several years down the line,Fijican forget about deregulation, competing internationally withSingapore, or driving on the information superhighway.  But that is another story.

In the meantime, what about the five recommendations above?

[Appeared as “Fijian education: the ostrich approach”, The Fiji Times, 18 January 1997.

 

“Fijian education: the sacred cows must die”. The Fiji Times, 20 January 1997.]

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