Re-thinking education – ‘The Government has totally lost its way’

There is so much potential power for good in the education system. Picture:

All the experts agree that the quickest and most effective way to improve a country’s economic and social status is to invest in education.

The FijiFirst party used to talk loudly about how much money it spent on education.

Then came the 2019/20 budget, when it ran out of money and severely slashed education spending. Now, it said, the Government would “work smarter”.

But to work smarter you must have a vision and a strategy and to know where you are going. And in the education field, the Government has never known what it is doing.

The National Federation Party has been calling, since 2014, for an Education Commission – a group of experts to lead a national collaboration on re-setting our education system for this century. The last time Fiji had an Education Commission was in 1989.

Former Education Minister Dr Mahendra Reddy announced in his 2014 maiden speech that the Government would set one up.

But then someone must have reminded him that this was an NFP idea, because that is the last anyone heard about it.

Since Voreqe Bainimarama came to power in 2006, there have been several haphazard reforms in education and several ministers have come and gone. But 15 years on, the ministry is just like the rest of the Government.

It has no vision and no plan. Leaders communicate their vision and plans to others.

But in Fiji none of the key education stakeholders have any idea what is going on. The Government shares nothing with them.

It makes random decisions without consulting teachers, parents or school owners.

It veers off in one direction and then another, with ministers and headquarters officials issuing edicts that they all forget about a month later.

The ministry’s piecemeal handling of the learning and teaching losses during the current COVID-19 crisis shows how dysfunctional the whole education administrative system has become.

Last week, the ministry could not even ensure that all its teachers were paid on time.

There is so much potential power for good in the education system. And the ripples it can spread go far beyond teaching our children.

Schools are focal points for communities. They serve as polling venues and cyclone shelters. It is in school halls around Fiji, not swanky Suva hotels, where the Government should be conducting stakeholder meetings and launches of their various new initiatives.

Many of us are invested in the education of our children and feel strong loyalty to our old schools. So schools are places where we all want to participate and contribute.

We seem to have forgotten that teachers have always been leaders in their community – respected for their knowledge, trusted to care for our children, sports coaches and event organisers – and yes, many even become politicians!

In NFP’s vision, schools should expand beyond just children’s education.

They should be centres of adult learning and places where communities come together to make important decisions.

These activities should be woven into our children’s education to make their education more relevant.

Insulting and derogatory

The FijiFirst Government has always behaved arrogantly in the education sphere.

They think that because they pay teachers’ salaries and student grants they have the right to dictate terms to everyone else.

This includes school owners and managers, parent-teacher associations and teacher unions.

These are the people who make education work.

The government forgets that all they are doing is redirecting the people’s taxes.

But it is the Government’s treatment of teachers in the last few years that has really stood out. Lecturing, talking down, labelling teachers as unqualified and threatening to replace them is not only derogatory and insulting but a bane of education. This has become a noticeable trait within the FijiFirst government.

Blame everyone else when things go wrong.

The latest to jump onboard the FijiFirst “blame others” platform is the Education Minister and her permanent secretary.

They are now aiming darts at certain members of the teaching fraternity by labeling them “unqualified”.

It is nonsense of the highest order to think that only teachers with Bachelor of Education Degrees bring credibility to the education system.

It is equally nonsensical to suggest that a new graduate can do a better job than a teacher with lower qualifications but with many years of experience in teaching.

I am sure that like me and thousands of others, the minister and her permanent secretary were nurtured by vastly experienced teachers, many of them with little more than certificate or diploma qualifications.

Of course we all want better qualified teachers, and of course we want teachers always to refresh and upgrade their skills.

But that does not mean you ignore the years of experience and commitment of the thousands of teachers who are in the system and treat them as a problem.

It is for the Government to provide a pathway for improving the qualifications and skills of teachers.

But this requires proper planning and funding – and, to do it properly, experienced teachers need to be part of the process.

Their views should be heard and respected.

Status of teachers

Until 15 years ago, all governments encouraged and supported teachers’ skills and qualification upgrades, as well as giving them security of employment.

Over many decades thousands of teachers benefited from in-service training and other professional development opportunities.

But since 2006, the Government has undermined every aspect of the noble profession of teaching, including forcing teachers into contractual employment. As a result the economic, professional and social status of teachers has been seriously diminished.

Over the last decade, under several Ministers, recruitment, promotion and career development for teachers have been severely compromised and in many cases politicised.

There are credible allegations that those that openly support the FijiFirst government receive promotions and other favours.

Teachers fear undertaking their social obligations and engaging with the community because they worry about being identified with the “wrong political side”.

They fear suggesting changes to policies and practices because they will be singled out as critics.

Overall, teachers today have less democratic space not only within the schools and classrooms but also in the community to be useful agents of change and good leadership.

School and classroom democracy and freedom

And the same is true of their students. No parent or guardian wants to send their children to a school where they cannot freely express themselves through debate and discussion.

We all expect our children to do well in the school, whether we are rich, poor, literate or illiterate. We want our children to grow up in a free, open, and transparent democratic framework.

In 2012, at the Fijian Teachers Association annual convention, I talked about the need for creativity and innovation in education and how it can be promoted through democratic teaching and learning.

We need to create the environment in which this can happen. Teachers have an important role in creating a school environment which encourages critical thinking, not conformity.

Students need to be able to evaluate different viewpoints and demand information and evidence.

But today’s rigid education environment, controlled by edicts from Ministry headquarters, achieves the opposite. We are producing a generation of people who are taught only to follow orders.

Gandhi once said “Democracy is not a state in which people act like sheep. Under democracy, individual liberty of opinion and action is zealously guarded”.

The same environment has led to an exodus of experienced teachers, both through premature retirement as well as migration.

Fewer young people see a future in the profession.

A few years ago the teacher shortage was so severe the then minister had to admit that senior students were teaching classes in some secondary schools.

Restoring credibility and quality

In education (as everything), the FijiFirst Government has lost its way. It cannot look critically and change anything because to do so would be to admit that it had been wrong for the last 15 years. And this is why it has to be replaced.

We need a new government that is not constantly fighting its own insecurities and is able to stand back and look at what is needed.

An independent and credible Education Commission is the first step.

A proper review of education, including the curriculum and job security of teachers will be a major priority of NFP in government.

But we must also ensure that the most important stakeholders know their own futures are secure and in safe hands. Our teachers have enough on their hands without worrying about their security of employment.

We will provide teachers with that security – permanent employment. We will reestablish partnerships between the school management, teachers’ unions and religious bodies to ensure their constant dialogue, discussion and strategies to improve the quality of education.

Education is our topmost priority. It has to be, because if we cannot improve our education b system, we cannot improve Fiji.

  • Prof BIMAN PRASAD is the leader of the National Federation Party. The views in this article are not necessarily those of The Fiji Times.

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