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Ministry of 'abrupt changes'

Dr Neelesh Gounder
Friday, January 12, 2018

IT certainly has been a tumultuous few years of policy making in education.

After the resignation of Dr Mahendra Reddy, many would have thought that abruptly announced changes from the Ministry of Education would be a thing of the past. However, it seems we might be mistaken.

Two recent issues highlight this and should raise questions on the commitment to consult key stakeholders on matters that affect the confidence of the whole education system. It is well known that sudden changes to workplace conditions without consultations are not favourable for industrial relations. These do not encourage a culture of mutual understanding and trust.

First, in the latter half of December 2017, the Ministry of Education sent a memorandum directing teachers to report for duties on Wednesday January 10, 2018. Both the teacher unions raised concerns that teachers were not notified of this before the closure of the 2017 school year.

There are teachers who were given approval to travel abroad with the assumption that schools would officially open on January 15 for teachers. As a result, there are teachers who have had to change holiday and family plans which can mean incurring additional costs and carrying unnecessary burden.

Second, new and practising teachers were caught off guard when the Ministry of Education announced an entry test which will be compulsory for new and some existing teachers. There is nothing wrong with a test like this and Ministry of Education has the authority to set its criteria for employing teachers.

Mandatory English language proficiency testing for all teachers regardless of their teaching subjects is already in existence in many countries.

However, imperfectly communicated, rushed and blurred policy tweaks and reforms will quickly start to show the underlying fault lines. When this happens, it can essentially have the impact of destroying a good idea with good intentions. It can also muddy robust discussions around the idea. This is what seems to be emerging in this case.

The test, according to an advertisement published in one the daily newspapers, consisted of two parts - an English proficiency test and a specific work test.

Then the media reported that 50 per cent of university graduates seeking to be teachers have failed the English proficiency test. There is, however, no mention of the specific work test results.

This raises several questions. What does a pass mean? How is the test result reported? Is the test only to assess English language skills? Or, will the test be used to identify teachers training needs? If so, how will the test results make up each teachers' profile of language proficiency?

It has also been said that serving teachers face the possibility of losing their jobs if they will continue to fail the English proficiency test.

It was also reported that if teachers fail the test after the second attempt, they have to find another job. It is therefore interesting that this argument, by implication, could mean that graduates with a degree in education might need to forget about a career in teaching. If the test is a standardised entry test, then a candidate should be allowed to retake until one shows a level of proficiency desired.

It is apparent that the roll out of this test has raised several issues from teachers and the public. The public pronouncement, whether intentional or not, has exposed a large group of new graduates to a certain degree of mediocre undertone. Further questions might be raised by the public and parents if the rest of the 50 per cent pass in the second attempt, a week later.

The bigger discourse emerging from these and previous reforms is clear. Reforms in education are not an end in itself. It must be clearly communicated to those directly impacted, should be transparent and lead to improvements in the quality of the teaching and learning process.

A good quality education system has important implications towards future economic and social benefits, both at the individual level and national level.

After a tumultuous few years of policy making in education, it is perhaps time to actually pause, think and see what it is we really want from our education system.

* These are the views of Dr Neelesh Gounder, and not of The Fiji Times or of USP where he works. He tweets at @GounderNeelesh.

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