Education reforms: adding to the students' "disruption"

Classes in our schools and colleges have not gone according to clockwork since the country played host to the XVI 2019 Pacific Games last year.

Students had to endure disruptions to their classes as preparations for the regional sporting event came to a head, followed by a three-weeks holiday for the duration of the games. And a return to classes at the end of July 2019 only got interrupted, again, mid-November as the Government declared a state of emergency [S.O.E.] to contain a growing measles outbreak that later claimed 83 lives.

The 2019 academic year was forced to close prematurely, thanks to the measles epidemic. No school prize-givings. No college graduation ceremonies and no graduation balls to reminisce and celebrate the closing of one chapter, and the opening of another.

Amidst these disappointments – and there are plenty in 2019 if you spoke to teachers, students and parents – we, unknowingly, landed in 2020 with the coronavirus [COVID-19] global pandemic hot on our tails. Travel restrictions ushered us into the new year with intrepidation, and another S.O.E. got declared two months later, throwing the spanner in the works of our students’ attempts to get some normalcy into their studies.

Today we are living what many commentators describe as the “new normal”: social distancing, wearing of face masks, and restrictions on public gatherings have come to the fore. Students were not spared in this recalibrating of citizens’ lives of epic proportions: class attendance depended on what grade a child was in, and each student has only had two or three classes a week in the last two months.

Last week the Ministry of Education Sports and Culture [M.E.S.C.] dropped a bombshell, when it announced a new policy that will change the whole structure of secondary education in Samoa.

As part of the reforms, Year 13 under the current secondary education structure will be abandoned next year, and Year 10 students will start sitting the Samoa School Certificate [S.S.C.] exam in 2022 and the Samoa Secondary Leaving Certificate [S.S.L.C.] examination two years later as Year 12 students in 2024. 

This means secondary schools in Samoa will have a four-year level comprising Years 9, Year 10, Year 11 and Year 12 unlike a five-year level as is currently the case. The 2021 Year 9 students will be the pioneers of the new system and will sit the S.S.C. in 2022 when they are in Year 10 and the S.S.L.C. in 2024 as Year 12 students.

Nonetheless, there appears to be some merit behind the new policy, as the M.E.S.C. has pointed to poor student results from consecutive national assessments as the rationale behind the reform. It specifically mentioned the poor results for the Year 13 S.S.L.C. and Year 12 S.S.C. exams in recent years, and singled out the performance of male students, hence the need for “appropriate interventions” by the Ministry.

But how can the M.E.S.C. announce major policy changes without prior consultation with its policy implementers on the ground such as teachers as well as college and secondary school principals?

And is the current environment in schools around the country conducive for major educational reforms to be introduced, especially with the global pandemic continuing to dictate student-teacher classroom hours and create more anxiety as repatriation flights of Samoans stranded abroad continue?

It is disappointing to learn that a lot of college principals only learnt of the new policy last Friday during a meeting of all college and secondary school principals.

In a story published in the July 30, 2020 edition of the Samoa Observer, Principal’s Association President and Principal of the LDS Church College Pesega, Siakisone Taleni, said they were only told of the changes last week and is of the view that the students are not ready for the changes. 

“We only found out about the new changes last week Friday when we had the Principals meeting,” he said.

“From the perspectives of the principals and parents, realistically students are not ready to make their own decisions. It will be a decision made by parents not the child because at that stage a lot of students are not ready to make that decision.

“I can confirm that when I was in high school and even after I still haven’t made the decision.”

Mr Taleni’s reference to students not being in a position to make their own decisions is in relation to what the M.E.S.C. describes as the “learning pathways” – where a Year 9 student next year will decide on whether he or she will major in Commerce, Arts, TVET or Science – and will “stream” into those areas in Year 10.

The Vice Principal of Robert Louis Stevenson Secondary School, Masa Faasau, also said the students are not prepared for the change and it is too early for a child to make a decision in terms of their career options.

Sensible governments, when introducing reforms in the public sector, would consult widely on the proposed changes and give themselves a timeframe on when the reforms – after consultation and if there is wide consensus among citizens of its long-term benefits – will be gradually rolled over a period of time.

Lately, we have seen one too many of so called Government reforms, which appear to have been made with little to no consultation with important stakeholders including the citizens themselves, who will be affected. 

This one promulgating major reforms of the country’s secondary education system, which a lot of college and secondary college principals are already voicing concerns about and calling for its deferral, would join that list of controversial Government policies that are a slap in the face of transparency and good governance.

Let's give our students a breather after a very disruptive 14 months and take things one step at a time in these days of uncertainty.

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