Seychelles' education system is ranked first on the African continent according to Business Africa magazine published earlier this year.
The island nation is recognised worldwide for its free education policy and over the years, this sector got the biggest portion of the national budget allocation.
Seychelles News Agency met with the Minister for Education, Justin Valentin, to learn more about his achievements in the two years he has headed the ministry and his future plans.
SNA: What would you say were your achievements since you took office two years ago?
JV: When you come in on day one, you come in with a vision of what you want to do in the ministry. But then on the second and third day, you analyse the extent to which the vision you came up with can be positioned in the place you have come to. The fact that you strongly believe in the vision you came up with; you try to see how adjusting the system to make room for your vision.
I had no choice but to spend a lot of energy building trust between the schools and the headquarters, the schools and parents and then between parents to headquarters. These are the three key elements that were the areas that I believed we had to build trust. Then of course there are stakeholders that we had to also build trust and build the relationship as there were relationships that had broken down.
I had to spend energy to make people see that my aim was to ensure that the schools were the centre for learning and since the children are at school then any issues arising should be dealt with at the schools themselves first. Headquarters will only intervene when all the avenues and resources at the school have been exhausted.
SNA: What has happened to the plan to make the school autonomous?
JV: Schools will never be autonomous because an entity can only be autonomous when it has financial power and it can choose what it does and what it buys; this is not the case with schools. The question is what kind of autonomy are we talking about?
We are saying there are certain responsibilities that do not need to be taken at the ministry level. To take a group of children from one school to visit the Botanical Gardens is not something that needs the approval of the ministry. The head teachers at school level have to be able to approve such trips. However, schools cannot say today that they will not teach maths at all this term because they feel their students do not need it. These are the types of decisions they will not be able to play with, as they concern policies and these policies are only changed at the headquarters level.
SNA: How are you aiming to scale up the process?
JV: We are working on a framework so people know what responsibility concerns the schools and what should be that of the headquarters. Everyone is always willing to say they are autonomous, but once you explain that this comes with responsibilities then they are reticent.
This is even the case in professional centres. Last year, the directors of the Seychelles Business Studies Academy and The Guy Morel Institute (TGMI) came to see me regarding their willingness to move on with the autonomy agenda. TGMI is already autonomous and it wanted to transmit its model to other professional centres. I created a think tank to make sure this happens, fully supporting the idea and after the fourth meeting some of the institutions involved started to back out. So, we have now taken another model.
Education is very different from the other ministries. There are many advancements that we have to bring in as a project or as systematic research. We now have a group of people working on a project to actually show the schools what it means to be autonomous. Eleven schools have been chosen for this project and as we work with them, there are things that the other schools can do.
We will give a series of activities and decisions that they will be able to take at school level. We hope that by the third trimester of next year, the schools will have a better understanding of the situation and we will be able to scale up the process.
SNA: Have you made strides in modernising learning in Seychelles?
JV: Sadly, we became the government at a time when there was no money. Bringing technology to schools requires a lot of money. Before introducing technology, the respective rooms must have proper and secured doors and windows. These are the challenges that we have to deal with where we had to take time to fix the schools' infrastructures.
Meanwhile, we are sensitising teachers to move to find existing resources online. For me, the internet is the best friend a school can have. However, when I came into the office we were at a time when teachers were told that they cannot look for already designed lesson plans. You have to design your own, my philosophy is that the lesson plans online or Online Educational Resources (OER) have been made by experts and they are put there for teachers to use. These are gifts that the experts have given their colleagues and should therefore be used. I want to change all of this so that classrooms and schools become learning sites.
SNA: Tell us briefly about the education convention you held recently.
JV: I am a bit disappointed as there are many things that we talk about with head teachers and leaders and not all of them take the messages to their schools. This is why sometimes when you have interactions with teachers and ask for their opinions on certain things brought forward, they give us blank looks. However, there are schools that pass on the messages really well.
I am bringing in a whole other culture. I believe that head teachers have a great responsibility to run their schools so there are many decisions that they will have to make themselves. The schools also have a community providing them with support, the structure has been designed for that community. For example, there is a school council, the school has its own managers, there is the Parent-Teacher Association. So why is it that some do not want to use these existing structures? Teachers at the schools are the older sisters and parents in communities and they must all think about the welfare of the child and these structures, therefore, must be used in the decision-making process.
I have also talked a lot about curriculum leadership and the existing model is one that I believe is ineffective. Most of the time the person responsible for the subject keeps saying they are reviewing the curriculum but it never gets to the schools. There are many teachers and they are the ones who team up to become the curriculum leaders in their schools. They are the implementers when the curriculum is drafted and they should be able to adjust and drive the curriculum agendas in their schools- these are all new ways to do things.
SNA: What were the highlights of the convention?
JV: The main highlight was to inform teachers of my agenda for the coming two years, which is to take a closer look at the classrooms where teachers and students operate and make changes there. The first thing that I talked about was the teachers as researchers.
Secondly, I spoke about professional development where we have to create opportunities for teachers to develop themselves professionally.
Thirdly, we decided to also take a look at the existing timetables, we should look at how we deliver where the timetable is concerned, how we structure it and how we teach the subjects in school. All this will help remove some of the pressure on the teachers.
SNA: Will there be changes in the timetables in the coming two years?
JV: There will be many changes, firstly we want to increase the length of the periods. Normally a period for a lesson is 40 minutes, through my own experience and that of teachers I have spoken to, we see that 10 minutes are lost in changing classrooms or teachers and settling the students. This means only 30 minutes are spent teaching - before you have the chance to speak the 30 minutes are up which does not leave time for consolidation activities for the students or even give students with different needs the additional time they may require. This is why sometimes you see students struggling. For those who say that the students will be bored during that time, it must be said that most teachers have double periods for their lessons so that means one lesson is 80 minutes.
SNA: Will this mean that school hours will also be longer?
JV: No, we will not be playing with school hours, we will simply re-adjust ourselves and this will mean we will have fewer periods during the day. Instead of seven or eight, there will now only be five. During Covid, we asked children to come to school on alternative weeks and this brought in many advantages in schools. Teachers said that they saw fewer fights, there was more concentration on school work and they could spend more time with a group of students.
This has inspired me to come up with another model in schools that will also deal with the lack of teachers. We should start grouping our subjects, this means that we teach a subject on alternate weeks we have what we call contact time with the students. This does not mean that we are excluding a subject for a week, the teachers will prepare lessons for students to do on the said subject on the week that it is not being taught.
The philosophy is since we did not have to do it in class, we get homework in that subject. After that, we will correct the lessons together and move on to the next topic. This will bring us to a different way of thinking and remove the responsibility from the teachers and get the students more involved and responsible for their own learning.
For instance, in our context, French is not a key subject like Maths and English and some believe that French is being neglected, which is not the case. French does not only happen in the classroom but it could be incorporated into plays, arts and projects. Teachers will simply have to move away from the traditional way of doing things.
SNA: Where do you see education and learning in the country heading under your leadership?
JV: For the coming two years I want to see more movement, excitement and energy in the schools. I want to see schools network more and bounce ideas off each other. Today, we see everyone running a race with the aim of getting an A in the IGCSEs, while very few manage to do that and many children are left behind when that child could have developed in other aspects of other competencies.
We should try to develop all the aspects of a student so that those who are not gifted for academic work can shine in other areas. Today we have many people saying state schools are underachieving. It is true they may not be achieved in academic subjects but they are doing well in other areas such as sports and non-recreational activities. Right now, students are making great achievements in the field of environment. Seychellois school children have played a major role in stopping people from eating turtle meat. School is not only about academic work and we need to change this conversation.
SNA: Does that mean that you are still having the conversation about establishing a vocational school?
JV: To start construction of a vocational school building right now means it will not be built within 18 months, so we have to look for another model in the meantime - which is what we are doing. We are looking at ways to adjust the curriculum so that even if the building is not there physically the students will be functioning under the concept of vocational education.
SNA: What are your plans for students with special needs?
I have included it in inclusive education and I have actually created a working group in August to work on that. I want the working group's agenda of converting two schools - a primary and a secondary- for next year into inclusive schools. Au Cap and Plaisance Secondary School are the two chosen.
Plaisance Secondary is chosen because it already welcomes students with some challenging needs and secondly because they are very receptive and are willing to join this journey.
Special needs have our attention and 16 counsellors will begin a distance learning course in psychology with counselling at Arden University. We are also looking at how to train teachers to work in environments where students have different challenges.
There is also some equipment to use with children with special needs that will be available. We want to see in the future the possibility of a deaf child becoming a teacher or a blind person becoming a lawyer. We will also change the name Exceptional School and we can then call it Roche Caiman or Les Mamelles school because schools in the country are usually named after the district they are located in. This will help remove the stigma attached to it, we want to integrate those children into schools.
We are also looking for experts to help us in the area of diagnosing dyslexia and other learning needs. After my visit to Cyprus to see how they could assist us, the inclusive education team is developing a plan on how we can address this as well.