EDUCATION IN FIJI
BR. FERGUS GARRETT fms
In the last few years there have many changes in our educational administration. Some would say we now have an Education Ministry of “total control”. The owners of schools can do nothing except pay for new buildings. There has been a complete takeover and the owners have been slow to realize the creeping growth of the control and have seemed powerless to stop it.
There are several new aspects of the system that contribute to this state of affairs, which may also be termed as “one size fits all and you must wear it”. It is completely opposed to “the customer is always right” and ignores the natural rights of the owners of what used to be a private enterprise.
First, schools have been forbidden to charge any fees and fundraising has been made very difficult if not impossible. The per capita grants have been allocated with very strict percentage allocations of the total amount. This has deprived school managements of any control over their budgets. The allocations specified by the Ministry are arbitrary and it is difficult for management to allocate funds to the particular needs of their schools. The excuse that these are taxpayers' funds and must be controlled by the government denies the fact that the taxpayers are in fact the parents of the school and have not agreed to these changes.
Second, there is the reintroduction of examinations set by the Ministry. These have restricted the freedom of teachers to concentrate on the real needs of their individual students. Time must be spent preparing some students for exams while others who are several years behind are neglected. Exams imply that all students are at the same level, which is never true. So many students are leaving Year Eight completely illiterate, unable even to recite the alphabet. They have no hope of following Year Nine curriculum.
Third, there is the emphasis on “performance” by the teachers, where each one is labelled for salary purposes on a “level” and then “band”. The infamous FEMIS is used to record teachers' punctuality and attendance (as well as a myriad other statistics that emphasize the extent of the new control system). The stakeholders of the schools, parents and students, and especially the owners have no say in judging the performance of these teachers. In fact, students are usually the best judges of their teacher success in first interesting them in learning and then helping them to learn. It is a well-known fact that students' learning depends mostly on their personal relationship with their teacher. This is completely ignored in the assessment of “performance”.
Fourth, there is the complete control of the curriculum through the issuing of “free textbooks”. Thus parents have no choice in what is taught at and how it is taught. An example was a “family life” text for secondary level. It was a thick book with about one and a half pages on family relations - the rest of the text dealt with individual needs of the adolescent. Stakeholders have no say in curriculum development. If the Ministry of education wants to “market” their policies and practice, including curriculum, then they need to do some “market research” by surveying the customers. There is no reason why a school should not specialise in certain subjects, rather than following the Ministry curriculum.
Fifth, there is the merit-based appointment of heads of schools. This policy may be appropriate for other sections of the government-owned Civil Servant work units, but schools are privately owned. Most schools belong to religious bodies in order to support and promote their own culture. Schools have developed their own special character that is the key to their success. The head of the School has a duty to fulfil the intentions of the owners and lead the traditional culture of the school, but this duty is completely ignored by the merit-based system.
Educational research shows quite clearly that a school performs well or poorly in correlation with the leadership ability of the appointee. Experience bears out the validity of that research. It is equally true that the vision and philosophy of the leader is vital to his/her leadership ability. The Ministry appears not to accept this research and has stated that appointments will be solely on merit using a very narrow definition of what that means. Can a Christian lead the ethos of a Hindu school?
In addition, schools have been forbidden to take a day off to hold staff sessions on the school's traditional culture. The owners are frustrated in their attempts to promote the traditional school spirit and culture. Is the Ministry trying to abolish the school's spirit and tradition? The present system allows for the existence of the extreme case of a Muslim school completely staffed by Methodists, however I am sure the Ministry would have to bypass their merit-based system to see that that did not happen, so why not do the same now for Heads of schools. Along with the above is the attempt to control the hiring of ancillary staff, even school managers.
Sixth, there is the notion that since the Government is giving money and teachers to run the school, then the government must control everything. This is a false idea, because the Fijian people are giving the money that the government uses, but does not own. At present the people supply the money but have no say in how it is spent. This is a totally different situation from the one that existed before “fee free education” (the days of “grants-in-aid”). Instead of school management being accountable to parents and owners, they are now accountable to certain persons in the Ministry of Education. The uniform per capita grant, instituted in 2014, caused much suffering in small schools whose annual budgets far exceeded the grant. Maintenance and development was at a standstill. This was already brought up in the 2013 workshops, but ignored. The situation was alleviated later, but the damage was done.
Seventh, and finally, the whole education system is based on the Fiji First pillar of a “knowledge-based society”, a self-contradictory phrase. Society is made up of families, not knowledge. To aim at basing a society on knowledge is a tribute to the god of scientism. Scientism is a belief in the infallibility of a scientific “facts” whereas real science is based on doubt and scepticism. This means that scientism is a form of religion, with its own beliefs, rituals and laws. But to build a society, it is necessary to build families. It is well known that urban nuclear families are having great difficulties, mostly due to the lack of marriage preparation and consequent unreal expectations of the spouses. Helping a couple to build a strong marriage and a strong family is a far greater need than more science and technology. Let us build a family-based society, where families and communities can run their schools as they wish, using their own tax money. There is nothing “racist” about such an aim. The student composition of faith based schools over the years has proved this. A family-based society would bring real peace, real progress and real prosperity.
When will there be some dialogue on the various rights appropriate to educational choices as enshrined in our Constitution?