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“Private (religious) schools and their principals” (ed. in FT 19 Jan. 2019)

19/01/2019

Private (religious) schools and their principals (FT 19/1/2018)

There is little doubt that under the Bainimarama Government since 2006, there have been major improvements in access to education for children of poor families such as removal of school fees, greater availability of scholarships and loans, free bus fares, free text-books, and even the mixed blessing that schools are not to fund-raise.

What is not clear, however, is the impact of some of the policies on the quality and character of the education, and the efficiency of management.

Yet these issues are at the heart of the recent controversy over the government’s decision that the MOE will appoint school principals without any consultation with the boards of the schools.

Of course, where the schools are totally managed by government, than that would be an acceptable policy.  But the issues become blurred with privately managed schools like those managed by education authorities of Catholics, Methodists, Muslims, and other religious organizations, OR non-government education organization like Chinese Education Society and the Gujarat Education Society.

With the government taking over more and more of the funding of teachers and schools in the last twenty years, it is easily forgotten by the younger generations that once upon a time, it was these private organizations which built, financed and ran these schools.

Not only that, but they were arguably the best schools in Fiji, and some, like the Catholics fought tooth and nail and often at great personal cost to themselves, in order to make education accessibly to non-white Fiji children.

Let me elaborate by reference to the religious schools I attended- the Marist Primary (St. Columbas and St. Felix then), and Marist Brothers’ High School run by the Catholics.

The early Catholic Schools

Anyone interested in today’s education system ought to read a wonderful book written by Brother Fergus Garret- The Marist Brothers in Fiji: 1888-1988 for whose launching I was honored to be invited as Chief Guest (see photo).

At launching of book by Brother Fergus Garrett: MC, Brother Fergus Garrett, Francis Hong Tiy, Wadan Narsey, Bill Yee, Brother, Bernad Vunibobo

Or you can read a Book Review I wrote (Fiji Times, 30 November 2010).  Let me quote briefly from that Review:

The Marist Brothers did everything: they not only taught children English, but some also insisted on teaching them their vernacular (Fijian); they also built school buildings, churches, houses, water supplies, roads, boats and furniture. 

     And we can see that in addition to their normal onerous jobs of establishing new schools, they also publish books such as the one we are launching today. They farmed, they fished, they formed brass bands, some went to prison because they happened to be Germans during the Wars; and some served longer terms because the were patriotic to their country of birth. 

     They worked all over Fiji:  Lau, Suva, Levuka, Taveuni, Savusavu, Lomeri, Napuka.  They faced challenges from Fijian students- boredom, rebelliousness, disobedience, and “bad spirits”.  It was not easy to convince children born and brought up in villages to go to school where they had to live disciplined lives

     And in their critical vocation of providing quality education, they also faced challenges from the Colonial Government and the State in independent Fiji, and the different priorities of their own Catholic Church in Fiji.

Most important was their passionate objective, which the Bainimarama Government also has espoused, that all races should be treated equally in education. I quote again from my review:

.. The Marist Brothers were first sent to Fiji to educate European children and Part Europeans “brought up as Europeans”. And indeed, during the earliest years the Suva school remained a European school as required by the Colonial Government of the day. But not too many years later, the Brothers understood that their vocation could not exclude the non-European children of Fiji, two additional schools were founded for indigenous Fijian youth: Cawaci School (Ovalau)  established in 1894 for Fijian students throughout Fiji; and Naililili School (Rewa) established in 1899. Then in 1897, St Thomas Indian School was established in 1897 for Indian students, later to become St Columbas under the guidance of Brother Alphonsus.

These early pioneering Brothers and priests often paid the price for their multiracial ideals such as being exiled from Fiji.

Marist Brothers’ High School which I attended in the sixties was once considered the best school in Fiji, attended by our former and longest serving Prime Minister (the late Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara) as well as former Minister of Finance (the late Bernard Vunibobo) and many other Ministers like Sir Vijay Singh.

Later on it was also attended by the current Prime Minister (Voreqe Bainimarama) and Attorney General and Minister of Economy (Aiyaz Khaiyum), as well as quite a few other current government ministers and senior civil servants.

The Bainimarama Government must ask why this quality private school was chosen by Hindu parents (like mine) or Muslim parents (like Mr. Khaiyum’s) or Chinese parents even though other government schools were available and probably cheaper.

School ethos and quality

While there are also government schools which have attained excellent standards (such as Natabua High or Labasa Secondary), the excellence of many of these religious schools (like Marist and Xavier) and private schools (like Yat Sen and MGM High School) were largely due to the dedicated nature of their governing bodies, and the principals they appointed.

I know that the governing bodies of these schools watch the performance of their schools like hawks. They keep their eagle eyes on the principals, the teachers, the staff, the facilities, the finances, and even the troublesome students and their parents, and any discrepancies are pounced upon.

I doubt if any of these privately run schools have ever had any serious cases of fraud or inefficiencies that have been associated with many government schools, even elite ones (whose names shall not be mentioned).

The benefits of privatization

Why private schools are better managed should be evident to all who understand the benefits of privatization of public enterprises.

Real “owners” of an enterprise take more care over the management of an enterprise than mere employees, especially when the shareholders of large public companies are very distant, like some multinational whose shareholders are far away, or as is the case of schools, the Ministry of Education officials sitting in Suva, representing hundreds of thousands of distant taxpayers.

The Minister for Education must ask herself: does her Permanent Secretary of Education and all her subordinates have the time, the energy or even the dedication that is needed to monitor every school principal and school in the country?  Especially when it is only natural for civil servants to not “rock the boat” even when they know that things are going wrong.

On the other hand, who doubts that management of a distant school must be tighter if the private school authorities (religious or otherwise) have themselves invested and built the schools over decades using their own scarce resources and energy, have boards comprising the parents of the students themselves (with clear vested interests), and have themselves appointed the principals.

Most importantly, the principals (and teachers) themselves know that that they are directly accountable to the local school board and parents who are watching them closely, every day, not some distant MOE official who might visit once a term, if at that.

Can you imagine the responsibilities that would fall on government and the ministry of education, if all these school authorities threw up their hands in disgust and told government to buy their schools and assets from the private bodies, and then they could appoint their principals as they wished?

In summary, given the historical origins of these schools and given that they have performed reasonably well over the years, why would government deny their management authorities the very little concession that they request (which is not really a concession) that they be allowed to appoint their own choice of principals, so that the ethos and desired school culture of their schools (whether religious or language) are maintained? After all, they are not asking to appoint all the teachers, or all the heads of departments.

It is spurious of the Ministry of Education to argue that their primary cocnern is “merit” as if the private school authorities do not care about merit. Surely, these education authorities are also appointing their principals “on merit” because they have a vested interest to ensure the highest quality of their schools, but that merit is broadly defined to reflect the culture that is desired in the school, not some narrowly defined “merit”, which in reality can often also include “political” characteristics of the individuals or their ability to tabe tabe the MOE.

Equity in taxpayers’ rights

It is not reasonable nor fair that a Government Minister should tell the private education authorities that if they want to appoint the principal, they must become totally private and not receive any funding from government, i.e. the taxpayers.

What about all the taxpayers who are the parents of the very children attending these schools and who also contribute to Government Revenue which is used to fund government schools?

Do they not also have a legitimate “basic human right” to demand that their children receive the same degree of financial support from tax payers funds, that government schools receive?

What if these parents all demanded that they receive a rebate on their share of the taxes so that they can then privately give their children the financial support they need?

Why politicize this issue?

While the Bainimarama Government’s stated desire to ensure equal access to education for all races is praiseworthy, their attempt to take away the little control that education authorities can legitimately expect over their own schools is surely not wise at all.

The public can well ask, is this being extended to all religious schools like the Muslims or Seven Day Adventists or others?

Given that there are many citizens (and voters) who feel strongly that they would like their children to be taught in a school culture which is in harmony with their religion, I have little doubt that Opposition Political parties will offer a different policy from that of the Bainimarama Government.

Why unnecessarily stir a hornet’s nest? “Why fix it if it ain’t broke”?

Surely the easiest policy would be to allow the private schools to appoint their own principals, as a token of government’s (or taxpayers’) appreciation for their initiative in managing the school?

Or if the Ministry of Education wants its pound of flesh, for Government to inform private schools that they can appoint school principals if they pay, say, half their salary. You might even find some private education authorities could not care less about appointing their own principal.

But I suspect that there may be a few who do value their own choice of principal because of the school ethos they believe in, and are “prepared to put their money where their mouth is”.

Down the line, the public might want to debate the even bigger question whether it is good for the education of our children that over the last thirty years, the control (and financing) of their children’s education has moved more and more from the local communities to the central government, thereby also fostering a “hand-out mentality” in our people.

Postscript 1: private schools are not all perfect

Which is not to say that these private education authorities are all perfectly managed. Some six years ago a certain economist invited by the MGM High School Board to be their Chief Guest at the annual prize giving had donated five thousand dollars in the name of his four eminent sisters (who went to that school) to be spent on planting trees around the bare school. The last time he looked, the tree planting had not occurred, despite the Bainimarama Government’s national initiative then of planting one million (now four million) trees. BUT I can be sure that the economist’s tree donation has not been squandered but is sitting in some bank account productively earning interest, in the good old Gujarati spirit of accumulating dollars rather than greenery.

Educationists will know that there is an even bigger and endlessly debatable problem that some schools (both private and government) and sometimes at the behest of parents, can completely prioritize narrow examination results rather than a “complete education” of the students. Which is also why you have “International” Schools in Fiji and why some wealthy parents send their children to incredibly expensive private schools abroad where the children get a more rounded education, especially in the arts, that they will never get in Fiji.]

Post-script 2:  Ashwin Raj and human rights (next post)

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