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“Are secondary schools doing their job?” (Fiji Times, 17 Oct. 2015)

22/10/2015

Are secondary schools doing their job?
Professor Wadan Narsey

A few weeks ago, the Minister for Education (Dr Mahendra Reddy), annoyed at the poor English of one of his senior civil servants, delivered a broadside at Fiji’s higher education institutions, their academics and their graduates.

Dr Reddy complained (in his own “unique” English) that despite possessing post-graduate degrees, there are hundreds of civil servants “fraught with lack of soft skills, lack of competencies in English proficiencies, unwilling to think outside the box and poor research capabilities” (FT, 8 Sep 2015). Oh dear.

Reddy alleged “We are bleeding because the various university academia are failing to provide us finished products.”

Reddy urged academia: “get out of your comfort zones and place yourself in the position of employers and ask yourself are you happy with the products”.

These comments from the Minister, a former senior USP academic and senior FNU administrator, must be taken seriously.

Yes, I can also vouch that over the last forty years, there has been a significant decline in quality of our university graduates.  But universities “cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear”.

Is the Minister himself researching?

Is the Minister himself conducting research to find out the quality of students being turned out by his own education system?

To thrown fuel on fire, Reddy released some shocking statistics a few days ago (FT, 14 Oct. 2015) that in biology, chemistry and physics, the pass rates were only about 15% to 20%, which were then “scaled up” to about 60%.

If true, how on earth could tertiary institutions like USP, FNU and FU, have been accepting these miserably failing science students and miraculously producing “great” graduates effectively “making silk purses out of sows’ ears”?

The Minister needs to himself research “inside his box” issues and give the full research report to the Fiji public (and not the selective dribs and drabs of “information”):

(a) what is the quality of primary students entering the various secondary schools throughout Fiji, district by district?

(b) what is the quality of primary and secondary school teachers throughout all the schools, district by district?

(c) what is the impact of MoE itself on the quality of teachers?

(d) what is the quality of intake of primary and secondary teachers given that the teaching profession is no longer a respected and desired career profession in Fiji, contrary to the situation fifty years ago (what career paths are taken these days by the academically best students?)

(d) what is the impact of the MoE itself, on the quality and level of resources that schools are able to provide students, district by district?

I raise a few pertinent issues seriously undermining the quality of primary and secondary education (I leave the quality of tertiary institutions to another article).

Teacher emigration

Since the 1987 coup, even our skilled secondary and to a lesser extent primary teachers, like all other skilled people, have been emigrating to greener pastures in Australia, NZ, Canada and US, with both “pull” factors (higher incomes and standards of living) and “push” factors (coups after coups) that are beyond Dr Reddy’s control.

In my 2010 education study for AusAID I found massive variability of teacher qualifications and experience throughout Fiji, especially bad in rural schools, whose teachers the MoE now plans to punish if they have “low pass rates”.

In particular, the average years of experience of qualified secondary school teachers was a mere 5 years while that of primary teachers was around 15.

Just as you cannot “turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse,” and secondary schools cannot do miracles with poor quality primary school graduates.

I challenge Dr Reddy to put into practice the research skills he wants his MoE university graduates to have, and tell the Fiji public what is the quality (qualifications and experience) of primary and secondary school teachers and principals, and their distribution throughout Fiji, urban and rural?

Impact of MoE on quality

Dr Reddy should himself research what has been the impact of the Bainimarama Government’s policies on school quality, such as

* compulsory retirement of principals and teachers at age 55?

* the ending of national examinations and its restart?

* telling all students that they will keep moving up in the school system whether they pass or fail exams?

* teaching targets of higher level teachers facing classes in which large proportions do not have the required skill levels but have been “progressed anyway”?

* the morale of teachers with poor quality students told that they are going to be punished for low pass rates of their students?

* stopping schools from fundraising to improve school facilities?

There are other questions:

* given that he now plans to use “raw marks” in assessments, how is Dr Reddy ensuring that all examinations have the same degrees of difficulty?

* what about students who are not motivated to study?

* what about schools where performance in sports is given precedence over academic efforts?

* what about differential facilities in science and computer laboratories?

I leave it to the Ministry of Health experts to comment on the implications of Dr Mahendra Reddy’s demand that school prefects must identify potential suicide victims among students. Good God.

School libraries and standards of English

We all know that students are not reading as much as they used to but watching TV and videos, and playing around with their mobile phones.

Every years, while Fiji “celebrates” National Library Week with a lot of publicity, schools continue to have poor library facilities and unqualified librarians. Even public libraries have “joining” fees.

Does all the publicity, large numbers of schools do not have adequate access to the Internet which can supplement library resources.

All students now take short cuts in spelling and grammar when texting, while commercial advertisements and TV children’s programs every morning publicize bad spelling and grammar.

Dr Reddy should initiate a research project to examine the standards of English of his own primary and secondary school teachers, and that of his own MoE staff.

As an interesting experiment and a good laugh, Dr Reddy can demand that his primary and secondary school teachers, his own MoE staff, and he himself take part in the “Spell Well” (“Spelling Hell”?) competition that the MoE runs, with the assistance of Fiji TV.

Why no Education Commission?

Over the last fifty years, Fiji’s dedicated private education authorities have valiantly struggled, despite the lack of resources, to maintain a quality education system which once was the envy of the Pacific.

In the last three years, the Bainimarama Government, probably on the recommendations of Dr Ganesh Chand and Dr Mahendra Reddy, have introduced some good policies such as increasing the numbers of scholarships and loans for tertiary education, freeing up of preschools, and subsidizing school bus fares- all creating public goodwill.

But instead of appreciating and complementing the private education authorities’ efforts, the Minister continues his “off the cuff” policy making, discouraging his own MoE staff, school authorities, principals, teachers, students and frustrated parents.

A few days ago, the MoE advertised that USP’s MBA will not be recognized by the MoE for purely education appointments, allegedly because of its “irrelevant” subject matter.

The public could apply the same logic to Dr Mahendra Reddy who is an economist, and definitely not an education specialist, nor an assessment specialist.

Common sense would suggest that given the scale of problems, the Minister ought to appoint an expert Education Commission that can conduct comprehensive research, consult widely amongst all stakeholders, present the findings, and develop a collective coherent strategy that can then be confidently implemented by the MoE, with the full support of the school authorities, principals and teachers associations, parents and students.

But this Minister of Education seems to prefer to continue the Bainimarama Government’s modus operandi of abrasive dictatorship despite widespread public concerns about the potential harm for Fiji’s once good education system and school children.

 

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