Friday, March 31, 2006


Holy Writ was intended to teach men how to go to Heaven, not how the heavens go.
Galileo Galilei

She went through her late dad’s stuff and assembled an interesting collection of his correspondence into a book with the help of Timothy Ferris. On skimming through it you will learn about how he used to help with her homework including an account of a discussion he had with one of her teachers. Keep on reading and you find out that Michelle’s dad was a member of the California Curriculum Commission. Is the story becoming more interesting? If it’s not, it surely will when I tell you his name: Richard Feynman, considered as one of the 20th century’s most innovative physicists.

According to the ranking compiled by Shanghai’s Jiao Tong University, California was home to 6 of the world’s 20 top universities in 2005 and half of the world’s top 6 (Stanford, ‘The Republic of Berkeley’ and CalTech). In fact apart from Oxbridge there was only one other university that made it in the top 20 that was not from America: Tokyo University.

They want Sam
A little luck or research will reveal that one of the schools that are sending students on a massive scale to those temples of learning is none other than Singapore’s Raffle Junior College. In 2004, it sent more than 300 students to top US universities with about 160 attending Ivy League schools. The government foots the bill for those who sign a 6-year bond to come and work for a government-controlled organization – that’s ½ of those going to America. I suppose you don’t drag your feet too much when you have to go to work for Temasek (that would be Singapore’s equivalent of our State Investment Corporation) after your graduate.

Compared to us, Singapore adopts a more competitive approach to education. There is an extra streaming step after 4 years of secondary education. And that’s not all. They attract talent from other countries in the region to their high schools by offering scholarships to those brilliant kids so that the smartest Singaporeans are in the company of an international cream of the crop. [1]

Marx would have lost it
Obeegadoo’s reform which mistook symptoms for causes adopted a coercive approach to try to prevent households from adapting to the shortage of quality secondary schools in a perfectly rational fashion. Besides, one should not forget that, after all, Obeegadoo’s ‘regionalisation’ is basically a new algorithm for allocating seats – one whose adverse effects could have been analysed in a spreadsheet or simulation model BEFORE its actual implementation.[2] The May 2001 report could probably have been entitled ‘Please bear with us while we gamble with your most precious asset!’

The trade-off households embrace
Mauritian parents are ready to have their kids travel a number of extra kilometres for a better secondary school and several thousand kilometres to attend a good university.[3] Why is that? Well, because they have rightly understood that university education is the Royal Route (Route Royale is something else) to landing a good job in our knowledge-based world and this can possibly happen via a state scholarship to a good university overseas. This is particularly true for the QEC: Obeegadoo’s report mentioned that the 143 seats there were filled by candidates ranked between 1 and 150. That makes perfect sense for anybody who is not a pseudo-marxist for two reasons. The first one is given that in some years the QEC has 12 laureates that works out to about a probability of getting a scholarship of a little over 8% for anybody gaining admittance in Form I there. These are amazingly good odds for snatching a free ticket to a good university if you ask me. The second reason is that it is absolutely normal for kids to want to evolve among peers of equal ability. Talent attracts talent and bean-counters flock together with surprising speed.

School choice
Quality of school is then the most important factor. But parents are also reasonable. They wouldn’t mind sending their kids to the neighbourhood school provided it is of an acceptable quality. With that in mind, they should be provided with more information, in a standardised format, about all the island’s secondary schools. And that should be available via the web.[4] In effect, we should come up with comprehensive descriptors of school quality (pass rate at SC and HSC levels, number of laureates if any, accomplishments in sports, amenities, etc) including a ranking of those schools that would be updated every year. Many households would then decide, for example, whether it is worth for their son or daughter to travel 5 additional kilometres to attend a school that has a HSC pass rate that’s 2% higher than the school next door.[5]

Cleaning up the mess
Minister Gokhool’s introduction of the National College is a step in the right direction and has necessitated the introduction of the A+ grade which gets us closer to the most meritocratic and transparent scheme for the allocation of seats in secondary schools: ranking. It surely is a much better criteria than skin colour, religion, straightness of hair, size of wallet or a combination thereof, right? And I hope that Dharam Gokhool does rapidly away with the retrograde approach for admission to the regional schools namely the combination of grade aggregate and residence. The problem with the grade aggregate is that it is not an unambiguous metric of performance as GPA (grade point average) or ranking are while the criteria of residence clearly tilts the scales in favour of the well-to-do.

What the CPE ranking is, really
It determines what secondary school you get into. That’s all. A better ranking definitely doesn’t mean that you will be ahead of or behind your peers throughout your whole adult life. Neither does the fact of winning a state scholarship a few years later.

CPE failure rate is ultimately a policy decision
When you have a CPE failure rate higher than 30% a number of possible reasons for such an unacceptable situation crosses your mind: the exams are too tough, a third of our kids are dumb, some teachers are not doing their jobs properly, etc. I don’t think that our children are dumb. I rather think that the exams are probably too tough and that some teachers are either unable or unwilling to teach properly. Add to that the fact that some manuals don’t even have an index! That really helps parents to get involved, eh?

What’s more troubling is that apparently a large number of students coming out of primary school don’t even know how to read. How can that possibly be? For sure, some of our kids need special attention and I sincerely hope that we are being inspired by what other countries are doing or have done in that domain.[6]

For one, the American ‘No Child Left Behind’ policy has reduced the time spent on subjects other than math and reading for some of the lowest performing schools. In some schools, children do only these two subjects and physical education until such time that they are ready to go back into the mainstream through some kind of standardized testing procedure.

The proportion of our kids that join the academic track should be determined by the pool of skills we need to ensure the kind of competitive advantage that works for a maximum of our citizens. Maybe not more than 5% to 10% of primary school-leavers should go into vocational schools. Let's hear what the data has to say. This is something we could have done before going to the polls this year if we had thought harder during the past few years. Or is it decades?[7]

The school system of today and tomorrow
It is important to note that 9/10 of every scientist who ever lived is alive today which partly explains why codified knowledge is expanding at an exponential rate. This should cause us to reassess the relative importance of the 3 or 4 major knowledge-acquisition techniques that are known to humanity.

Our education system should also have a great deal of flexibility to allow many opportunities for our citizens to increase their human capital throughout their lives. That should include ample options to change streams or to add skills from either one. Also, that system should make getting an university degree as easy as buying a soap.

We also need one or more mega-universities in the next couple of years and the provision of adequate financing and scholarships to students.[8]

The easy access to quality tertiary education in adequate quantity will have a positive effect on the behaviour of parents at the primary and secondary level. I bet you that they would then see a much smaller need for private tuition and instead load on extra-curricular activities which the system would have to provide on a much larger scale.

Oh yeah, one very bizarre characteristic of our current set-up is that girls and boys are always together from kindergarten to university except at the secondary level. Is there a good reason for that? I don’t think so.

The gross tertiary enrolment ratio can also be boosted by allowing SC holders aged 23+ to get university education as mature students once they get through a couple of math classes delivered in the evening in a number of our secondary schools.

Furthermore, we should participate in major international surveys of student performance like OECD’s PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) and other prestigious competitions.[9]

Education policy, just like any other policy for that matter, should be backed by solid research. Our CSO, MES, MRC should be beefed up with all the necessary tools to improve the measurement of the drivers of economic well-being and their findings should be widely disseminated.[10]

For most of us, probably the last time we started to learn our third or fourth language we were about 5-6 years old. This paradox should be corrected given that we will live to 80 or more years. Our extraordinary ability to take up at least a couple of additional foreign languages remains pretty much unexploited.

Last but not least, we should place a premium on the importance of great teachers. Of all the awards that Richard Feynman won (that includes a Nobel), the one he treasured most was the Oersted Medal for Teaching.

Comments, as usual, are welcomed at

[1] See The Wall Street Journal, May 6, 2004.
[2] The electoral reform debate about proportional representation should also go through a similar analysis.
[3] Last July, the ex-rector of RCPL, J. Gopaul, reported that in the 90s he had noted that more than 25% of the 900 students in his college came from rural areas especially from the north of the island. And God forbid no Mauritian parent finds out about a university in some distant galaxy.
[4] That should become even easier with the project to be headed by Dr. Appu Kuttan.
[5] Given that we’ve been so great at planning things in our country over the last quarter of a century or so the trade-off is in fact between quality of school and travelling time. It can only be hoped that the purchase of specialised transportation software authorised in one of the very first cabinet meetings of the current government has already yielded solutions that will be implemented Godspeed.
[6] It is interesting to note that special needs are also recognised at the tertiary level elsewhere. Indeed, some universities like McGill University have an Office for Students with Disabilities which make sure that such students get as much as twice the time indicated on their exams to complete them.
[7] It would be interesting to enlist the help of psychometricians and unbiased psychologists to have another angle on how the difficulty level of the CPE exams has varied over its history.
[8] These student loans could be subsidised by government.
[9] The next PISA survey is in 2009. We better not miss it.
[10] The computers of the MES have barely told us what they know.

No. 4 April 2006
© Sanjay Jagatsingh, 2006