Revamping Fiji's Education Sector
By Professor Biman Prasad
Opinion Piece was published in the Fiji Times on Saturday 11th January, 2020.
Earlier this week the Government announced the resignation of the Permanent Secretary for Education, Alison Burchell. The resignation took place with immediate effect. Apparently she had a desire “to pursue other interests”.
January is an intense month in the Ministry as preparations are made for the new school year. So it seems a strange time for the PS to wake up one morning and decide to pursue “other interests” – and that she will start pursuing them tomorrow.
Everybody knows what is behind the smooth talk – the favourite is “family reasons”. It is obvious that a crisis blew up. And, as is always asked with such sudden resignations – ‘did she jump, or was she pushed’?
Sooner or later, however, the task of trying to make sense of the Government’s education policies was going to become too much for anyone. So, losing the head of department at the beginning of the year did not so much create chaos in the education sector – it just added to it.
For years, I have been asking the Government to put together an Education Commission, so that we can all begin talking, as a nation, about where our education system is going and how to change it for the better.
Education is like the climate – it is all about the long term. The results of bad policies and bad decisions do not turn up now – they turn up later when it is too late.
We have a government that thinks only from one election to another. Everything it does is about looking good today. It cannot think long term. Just as we need to be thinking carefully about how we invest in education, the Government, desperately short of money, has cut education funding by 20%.
Problems and solutions
Recently, we all saw the disastrous Mathematics results in external examinations. English results were not all that much better. These are core subjects essential to the skills necessary for Fiji’s economy and social cohesion, now and into the future.
There is no point blaming students, exam setters, curriculum, schools or teachers for these pathetic and unacceptable results. We need to look at the underlying causes of the problems and what we will invest in now to bring about long-term changes.
At the start of a New Year it is customary to make resolutions and to think about action for success. In that spirit let’s look at solutions and opportunities for education, not just problems.
We need to look at governance, funding, infrastructure and the skills we need to teach as our world changes. We need to look at how the community and the Government can work together.
But in this article I want to start with the most important element of the education system – our teachers.
Teaching is a profession
Teaching is not just a job. It is a profession. People do not become teachers to secure a three or five-year contract. They go into it with a passion and dedication that they commit to for life.
Teachers do not go every day to an 8am to 3pm job; they stretch their days to take care of the needs of their students.
Just like lawyers who want to remain part of the Bar, surgeons who wish to continue practising their craft or pilots who want to continue flying or fly different planes, teachers must have continuous professional development; get credentials for that professional development; and be recognized for that level of credentials. This will move the “merit” from a test at recruitment and the need for re-recruitment every 3-5 years, to a continuous development and assessment of merit based assured quality retention approach. This is a good basis to turn teaching from a job to a profession.
Currently, teaching credentials that allow people to teach our children include one-year certificates, two-year diplomas, and multi-year degree programs with in-service training. There is significant difference in the quality and depth of these credentials. If all of these credentials essentially let you teach our children, with the difference being the pay rates, then we have an issue with quality control.
And, compounding the problems, no formal recognition is given to experience. The experience of a seasoned teacher is no longer part of the quality of teaching equation in our schools.
Fiji must establish stringent standards as to who can teach in our schools. This will tighten up the entry point, with the side effect of having a smaller pool of would-be teachers to choose from.
However, this will also standardize quality and present opportunities to engage experience and professional development credentialing as tools for career development and retention of qualified teachers.
Producing a graduate teacher must not be the end-point. It must be the starting point.
We need those institutions that train our teachers to do education related research and transfer that cutting edge knowledge into continuing education, helping teachers stay abreast of the evolving sector or subject area. This will help maintain a standard of quality for everyone – new graduates and veterans Teachers will have to keep up continuous education credentials to maintain their teaching licenses.
The Fiji Teacher Registration Authority (FTRA) must be revamped. FTRA should be like the Bar for lawyers. It must not only set the standard for a teacher to start teaching. It must also set the standard for a teacher to stay teaching.
It must register teachers by their specialty areas and then follow up on the progress on their continuing education, for example registering “Master Teachers” when they receive a suitable level of skills. FTRA should be able to maintain an accurate database of the subject, level of experience and expertise, and active status of all teachers in Fiji. This should be linked to assessment reports that give us an accurate picture on not only how many teachers we have in each subject area, with what degree of expertise, but also with the information from the teacher-education institutions, how many are in the pipeline to be ready at any given level of employment and engagement.
We are now so short of qualified teachers in certain subject areas that it has become a crisis. Immigration to other countries by qualified and experienced teachers, amongst other things, is significantly affecting education in Fiji.
So FTRA must develop the capability to accurately present numbers of active and registered teachers available to Fiji; correlate with subject specific needs, and numbers in the pipeline to become teachers, in order for Fiji to deal with this crisis in a systematic and sustainable manner.
Career development is an essential component of retention of good teachers. To keep great teachers we must look at how we pay them. If we are demanding self-sacrifice and commitment from them, then we must also reciprocate in terms of what we offer them in return.
In order for teaching to become a profession where quality is continuously improved, we must look at career development as a responsibility incumbent upon both the teacher and the country.
Some responsibility, including effort, time and finances, lies with the teachers in developing and maintaining their careers. Some responsibility also lies with the government in offering free continuous education, scholarships and inducements to help them achieve continuous improvement.
There are many ways to administer schools and their employees, including teachers. There obviously needs to be a nationwide discussion on how we want to manage our schools. There are practical issues that we must openly and constructively discuss. These include teacher placement, family and community ties, urban versus rural deployment needs, faith-based and other special considerations, and local versus national needs.
Taking a national consensus approach will also help us work out how the nation is going to pay for incentivizing people to become teachers, take up jobs in certain challenging areas, maintain progress in quality career development, and reward excellence.
Emigration is a fact of life. People will always want to migrate to greener pastures and foreign nations will always recruit qualified people that others have spent their national treasure developing. The situation regarding teachers in Fiji and migration is not unique. This, however, does not mean that we must not analyze the situation and try our best to mitigate it.
We must look at the conditions associated with foreign aid and resources coming into Fiji in context of education development and who is benefitting from the end-results. If Fiji becomes just a supplier of qualified teachers to New Zealand and Australia, then our progress will be limited and we will not be able to realize the full potential of our future economies. We must see how we can make Fiji’s pastures greener, so that qualified people prefer to stay at home, rather than wanting to call someplace else home.
One of the most ill-conceived and stupid policies ever implemented by a government in this country was to reduce the retirement age for teachers from 60 to 55. I have often heard the stupid argument that this will help provide more jobs and for younger people. All this does is replace experienced teachers with those with no or little teaching experience or teacher training.
If the government wishes to recruit and maintain quality teachers it should immediately raise the retirement age to 60. Many of those in teaching beyond 40 years of age are actively looking at teaching jobs elsewhere such as Australia and New Zealand where the retirement age is over 6o. So in fact we start losing teachers in the 40s just when they have the best experience to contribute to quality teaching.
Removal of contractual employment
Contractual employment is preventing teaching from becoming a profession. This creates employment insecurity and the perception of teaching just as a job but not a noble life-long career.
To achieve professionalism and significantly reduce losing teachers to greener pastures, contractual employment should be removed.
Education and health are the backbone of any populace, upon which robust economies are built. We must be prepared as a nation to take the proverbial bull by the horns. Every child goes to school to build their destiny. The destiny of each child builds the destiny of the nation.
We must, collectively, do what we can to ensure a bright future for every child in this country and a bright future for our country. And we can start by looking at improving life for our teachers.