Hon Ro Teimumu Kepa
[Shadow Minister for Education and Heritage]
Education problems and challenges: time to work together
I wish to add my voice to the current divisive and troubling education controversy about merit in appointments of teachers and principals.
I also express my support for recent education statements by the Leader of the Opposition. He spoke of the poor state of the Government's education system, criticized its policy on appointments and recommended a National Education Commission
I make this statement not only as Shadow Minister for Education, but as a devout Catholic. I could not function without my faith; it is everything to me.
Let me declare that I object strongly to current efforts to publicly demonise our Archbishop, His Grace Peter Loy Chong and by association the Catholic Church in Fiji.
Demonise for what? Because our church follows certain enlightened and tested principles in its education mission, and because it is guided by the importance and power of faith?
These elements have combined well in our church schools to provide generations of Fiji's children with a sound education equipping them for adult life and good citizenship.
The many allegations against the Church and the Archbishop are empty-headed and misconceived. There is nothing extremist, racist, or discriminatory about the Archbishop's articulation of the church's preference for principals who are of the faith. That is a fair and reasonable position. The Archbishop has explained in detail why it is reasonable and an indispensable part of Church tradition.
I was particularly incensed by the recent diatribe in the media aimed at the Archbishop and the Church by the director of the Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Commission, Mr Ashwin Raj.
Mr Raj accused the church of many things including, for goodness sake, racial profiling and seemingly oppressing multi-culturalism, tolerance and diversity! Mr Raj should have praised our Church as a continuing model of tolerance and diversity and multi-cultural education.
Through extremely tortured logic Mr Raj argues that the Catholic reliance on faith in its education philosophy is, somehow, an affirmation of discrimination! He should explain clearly how he arrived at that conclusion.
It is not surprising that Mr Raj has taken the Government's side in the controversy about the Open Merit Recruitment Selection System (OMRSS).
Our Church does not need lectures from Mr Raj about how it should conduct itself. He obviously has no knowledge, or appreciation, of the role of the Catholic Church in education from the 1880s. Catholic missionaries and teachers went where none had gone before to bring education to all. It was a lonely road at the time; A testimony to faith.
Mr Raj is obviously unaware that of the 750 schools operating in Fiji today, 95.2% are non-government owned and the vast majority of these are faith based.
The Catholic Church itself owns and operates 44 Primary and 19 Secondary Schools in Fiji. They employ 1,021 teachers of which 58% are non-Catholics. Their 63 schools have a student roll of 16,268 of which 46% are non-Catholics and 40% of the Secondary School Principals are non-Catholics.
Mr Raj would be better employed trying to shake off his image as a Government mouthpiece.
The root cause of the current impasse is the Government's refusal to allow the church to appoint Catholic school principals. The church adheres to this as part of an enduring effort to protect and promote the Catholic character of a Catholic school.
The issue intensified recently when the Government replaced with non- Catholics the Catholic principals of St Thomas High School in Lautoka and Xavier College in Ba. I understand there was no consultation, no discussion. Just a dictatorial decision to impose the Government's will.
Our Church, which has a proud record of successfully starting and managing schools in Fiji, knows how to select principals. It has been doing this for many years. The Church felt the two principals unilaterally removed were doing an excellent job.
Judging by its action, the Government thinks it knows best. It does not.
The Catholic Church has got a very large investment in education – not just in financial terms, but also spiritually and socially.
Ms Akbar has first-hand experience of a Catholic education. She was a pupil of Xavier College. Fiji's first Prime Minister Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara had a Catholic education. So did the current prime minister, Mr Frank Bainimarama and the Attorney General Mr Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, a former education minister.
Mr Sayed-Khaiyum has publicly praised faith-based organizations like the Catholic Church and others for their contribution to education. He said it was only through the work of these organizations that Fiji had an education network throughout Fiji.
The- disconnect and contradiction here is that this Government has now decided that the Catholic Church and the rest of the education network providers, cannot be trusted to appoint school principals. They are praised on the one hand and then treated with contempt on the other.
The Government, as always, speaks simplistically of the supremacy of merit. Our Church says faith can be part of merit. The Government, for reasons not clearly explained, will not accept this and relies on a narrow doctrine of merit.
Those who are targeting the Church obviously have no understanding at all of its record of building up the school system in Fiji and of providing education to children and young people from all our country's diverse communities.
A school was established in Suva shortly after 1888. Others followed including for Fijian girls at Wairiki, Taveuni, in 1883; for Indian boys in Suva in 1897; for Indian girls at Naqaribula, Navua, in 1915; for Indian students at Rarawai, Ba; secondary education for boys at St Felix College in Suva and for girls at St Philomena's in Suva; multi-racial education in Suva in 1937; more recently co-educational boarding schools for secondary students at Wairiki, Cawaci and Savarekareka in Savusavu.
By 1935 the Catholic Church, which then had only about 16000 members in Fiji, had responsibility for 45 schools in many parts of the country, with over 150 teachers. It had started a teachers' training college at Cawaci, Ovalau.
Those who choose to denigrate our church should be aware that the pioneering Catholic brothers were among the first to offer secondary education to non-Europeans. They were penalised for this action of enlightenment by the colonial Education Department.
Our present network with its approximately 20,000 students, continues to embrace students from many cultures, religions and socio-economic backgrounds. In fact, nearly half of the students in our schools and institutions are not members of the Catholic faith.
Let it be noted that places for students sponsored by the Methodist and Anglican churches and for non-Christians are reserved at the Catholic Corpus Christi Teachers' Training College where I served as principal (confirm/what years).
For the information of those interested in the financial aspect of our education mission, I can confirm that we receive annually about $6.5million from the Government as free education grants.
The Government appears to regard this contribution as giving it some form of leverage. However, what cannot be ignored is the now multi-million dollar value of more than 60 schools that the church owns and operates. Of course, our Catholic Church members also pay taxes and duties far in excess of the value of the Government contribution for fees.
The Opposition has declared that it is willing to cooperate and work with the Government in a spirit of true partnership for the management and progress of our nation.
We understand that there are some difficulties on the Government side with this, but we are not deterred. We continue to hold out the hand of reconciliation and unity and to emphasize the importance of bi-partisan dialogue and discussion.
In furtherance of this, therefore, I intend to propose to our Parliamentary caucus that the Opposition makes an urgent approach to the Minister of Education to seek solutions to the issues outlined here.
I intend to propose that the Minister and I as the Shadow Minister for Education sponsor a bi-partisan gathering of all education partners to study the questions that concern each of them.
For the Catholic Church of course I have touched here on the pressing differences over crucial appointments; we look for a more liberal and accommodating policy.
I recollect that not long after the last election, the Prime Minister spoke of adopting a kinder touch. There is a perfect opportunity here for that to be demonstrated, along with a willingness to listen directly to concerns of the community.
Finally I wish to place on record my appreciation, and that of the people of Fiji and the vanua of Burebasaga, for the immeasurable contributions by so many faith and culturally-based organisations to give Fiji a system of education truly rooted in the community. Vinaka Vakalevu Sara!
Authorized by: Ro Teimumu Kepa