Fixing the Education Mess
Why we need an Education Commission
By Hon. Prof Biman Chand Prasad
Published in the Fiji Times on Saturday November 2nd, 2019.
Education affects the future of all of our children. It also affects how all of us will earn our incomes and work together as citizens to improve our economy and manage our biggest problems.
Better-educated people will manage their health better; they will be more flexible and adaptable to economic changes that affect their jobs. They will understand the dangers of drugs and the pointlessness of domestic violence. So a strong, relevant education system is critical to Fiji’s future.
For many months I have been discussing Fiji education issues with school managements, teachers, principals, head teachers, faith-based organisations, parents and students around the country.
Almost all of us know someone who is a teacher or school manager. Many people have dedicated their lives to education. Thanks to them Fiji has a huge well of deep experience and understanding of our current problems, and some of the solutions.
Many of these people appreciate the additional support that the current government has provided to education, including the funding that makes the last years of school free, bus fare support and so on. However, they are also worried about how education policies are being implemented.
This article captures some of those concerns and my own view of what has been going on in the education system. It underscores my view that we need an Education Commission to consult widely and help Fiji get to a unified position on the future of its education system.
In the time it has taken this year’s Year 8 students to go through Primary School, Fiji has had three different Education Ministers and at least three Permanent Secretaries. Each of them seems to have run the Ministry according to their own whims, with little or no long-term plans or buy-in from the rest of the country.
The current Permanent Secretary (PS) of Education was originally hired from overseas to run the Department of Youth and Sport. She has no or little background in education. However she appears now, in the new tradition of the Ministry, to be trying to impose her will on the entire education system without consulting anyone, and micro-managing every school activity, from fund-raising to teachers’ overseas travel.
She is keen to get rid of paper books and replace them with e-books, when the majority of Fiji’s students cannot afford a laptop or tablet. That assumes that they even have a reliable power system to charge their devices.
This is not so different from the wild promise made by an earlier Education Minister that every student would, in the following year, be working with an electronic tablet. Of course, nothing came of it.
But how can school stakeholders plan and manage their schools when instant memos appear from Education headquarters which change the way they must work – often with little understanding of the work involved in those changes and how they affect other school activities?
It’s estimated that we are short of about 400 teachers. However our universities are producing only about 125 teachers per year.
New Zealand has now opened up its immigration to teachers, so we are losing them to both New Zealand and Australia. So we should expect shortages to get worse.
The Ministry seems to have no plan to encourage universities to produce no teachers, or to entice university students to become teachers.
But of course for students to become teachers, they must believe in teaching as a career. The unilateral and ill-conceived policy of issuing three-year year contracts and mandatory retirement at 55 has destroyed that belief.
Professional respect is important. Teachers – who are entrusted with the education of our children – should be among the most respected professionals. Their pay is already sub-standard. They are demoralised by arbitrary firings and demotions. But if we now treat them as robots who must simply do what Education headquarters tells them to do, we destroy their passion for education.
Former Minister funding s’ ongoingHe seemed to assume that teachers were qualified, they were teachers for life.
But like all professional people, teachers need continuing education and training as the world changes.
There are hardly any teachers left to fill openings in primary education and early childhood care and education (ECCE). We are told that the Ministry is hiring secondary school teachers to fill these positions instead.
Now, with the shortages looming over their heads, the Ministry is re-hiring teachers they mandatorily retired – but there seems to be no transparent system for this. Some are called back to service. Others who are available are not, leaving open speculation about who is hired and why.
In the last Budget education funding was savagely cut. We were told that Government is “working smarter”. We all know that is not true. We know that Government cannot make ends meet and must now take the axe to even its basic services.
The newly-reduced per capita student grant is not even enough to fix leaking roofs, let alone build new laboratories or modern facilities. The cuts means that schools cannot meet the need for basic consumables, laboratory equipment, or even toilet paper.
Free transport cards for students has been reduced to only classroom times. This means that the cost of transportation is passed back to parents if their children want to engage in any school-based activities outside of classroom hours. But often it is these voluntary activities – sports, debating, science projects – where teachers and students interact the best, away from their overcrowded classrooms.
We remember the much-hyped free milk programme for schools. It was a disaster in implementation. Some schools were oversupplied (and school staff surreptitiously sold stock to supermarkets). Some were under-supplied so the scheme meant nothing at all.
The Ministry now pushes E-books and E-Exams. This is a good idea in theory, but not in practice when many poor and rural students cannot access them. If a book is lost, for whatever reason, the student must pay to replace it. The Ministry’s policies arbitrarily punish the most vulnerable and deserving.
Human resources within the Ministry
The Ministry is creating a serious rural-urban divide by placing junior teachers predominantly in rural and maritime because senior teachers do not want to go. There are no incentives offered to experienced teachers to serve in remote areas.
Staffing decisions used to be in the hands of district officers, who understand their districts and talk to teachers and parents there. Now Education headquarters – staffed by people with no idea of local problems in the area – have taken this over.
Many teachers, especially married teachers, were previously able to negotiate placements with other teachers to address housing, joint placement and family related problems. Now no such considerations are allowed by headquarters. This means teachers are forced to quit or split their families.
Violence, bullying and even drug-taking are becoming prevalent in some schools. The government has no unified policy to deal with these problems. Their solution for a problem student is to transfer him to another school. This becomes one more problem for school management and teachers to bear.
Teaching is not a regular job; it is a profession of passionate caring. But the government’s Civil Service Reform Management Unit (CSRMU) seems to have no idea of this. It treats teaching as just another civil service job.
CSRMU teacher performance criteria do not take into account the many things that teachers have to do in a school besides teaching. They organise student activities; they help with after-hours remedial learning; they supervise students who may have to wait for their parents to collect them; they even take care of students living in boarding schools. Sometimes they are even cleaning classrooms.
None of these activities are mentioned in the job description of a teacher or are a part of teacher performance assessment.
Appointing junior teachers as Assistant Principals and Principals, while getting rid of senior teachers who have served for 10-15 years, based on “tests” that make no sense is another particularly arbitrary and stupid thing CSRMU has begun in the education sector. This shows they do not understand it at all. It is frequently used to scapegoat teachers the Ministry considers troublesome.
These “tests” have nothing to do with so-called merit-based recruitment. They are insulting to senior teachers who have been in the profession for long periods of time and understand education well.
Teachers are not allowed to fail students at any level when they are not up to par, meaning that students graduating from secondary school may not even have basic literacy and numeracy skills.
A few years ago a senior education official blasted universities for producing graduates who could not write properly. He seemed to ignore that it was his ministry which looked after the first 12 years of that graduate’s education!
The Ministry requires teachers coming from remote islands to Suva for official business to take personal leave or leave without pay for the travel time. Why should a teacher lose five days of pay while travelling or waiting for a return boat, because he or she is ordered to Suva? This is typical of the unfairness suffered by teachers because of the Ministry’s poor planning and generally chaotic administration.
The Ministry changed the school curriculum in 2015 with the intention of having it fully implemented by 2019. Instead of building upon that, they are now looking at changing the curriculum again.
Why? Did they not get it right the first time? What is the criteria based upon which the new curriculum will be developed? Who was consulted on finalising the criteria?
The Ministry is moving curriculum delivery from printed formats to digital formats. This may be a good idea, but not when the Ministry has not thought out and shared with the country how this content will be delivered to the poor and the remote people who do not have access or the money to access commercial internet.
Who will pay for tablets and computers? Who will pay for replacement of damaged devices? If the parent cannot afford to pay for the replacement of a damaged device, will their child be kicked out of school? Where will the money come from to support additional IT positions that will be needed to support the electronic devices?
As part of its desperate fund-raising efforts, the Fiji First government announced a 10 cent levy per Gigabit of data in the last Budget. Immediately the “Plans” from both Vodafone and Digicel changed.
As an example, generally the plans offered 7 gigabits for 7 days for $7. Now it is 5 GB for 7 days for $7. So how will the students afford these ever-increasing costs of connectivity to access their books, content, and even exams?
The real cost to parents who make less than $3 per hour is enormous, especially if they have more than one child.
The Ministry has been at loggerheads with the faith-based organizations regarding the introduction of their content into the curriculum taught in schools. Yet, the Ministry has paid no attention to how it will introduce leadership, values and whole-person development content in the curriculum taught at schools.
The Ministry has shown no initiative in building processes and pipelines that will produce high school and university graduates with the kind of qualifications needed for jobs of the future. In fact, the Ministry probably does not even have money to create career advisor positions in all schools.
The Ministry does not identify exceptional students and help them with advanced learning to tap into their true potential; rather it dumbs down these bright students to fit its one-size-fits-all approach to education.
Where is the representation of Arts, Music, and Culture amongst the Ministry personnel responsible for determining the next iteration of the Curriculum for Fiji schools? What are the criteria for developing “Curriculum” for Fiji schools? Who decided this? Why is this criteria not shared with the entire country?
The provision of education to our students should not be controlled by narrow interests of Government ministers and their advisers. Education is, as the economists call it, a public good. It is important to all the people of Fiji.
There have been many haphazard changes over the last 13 years which are having a detrimental impact on the quality of education. Curriculum changes and other changes should be discussed publicly, decided upon, and then consistently maintained for the foreseeable future.
Fiji needs to address technology and education to avoid a digital divide and tiers of education ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ based on network and technology affordability or geographic location of where they live. Education should not be based on the ability to buy commercial data plans.
These are all problems that require a collective, non-partisan approach to achieve the best solutions. We should be capitalising on the deep skills and knowledge of our education professionals in the community. We should be asking for their help in designing the best outcomes for the future.
That is why we need an Education Commission. If we care about our future generations, we must start – now.