Ro Teimumu V. Kepa
Minister for Education
Ro Teimumu Kepa was appointed Fijiís Minister for Education in September, 2001. Between 2000 and early 2001, she held the portfolio of Minister for Women, Culture, Heritage and Social Welfare. Ms Kepa has worked extensively in the education sector beginning from primary schools to teacher institutions and the University of the South Pacific.
A more focused approach to education
The Fiji Islands is made up of over 300 islands scattered over a wide expanse of sea water. Its geographical features coupled with its isolated position in the wide Pacific Ocean, makes its location a major challenge in the provision of education. Like other small island states, the issue of size is also a variable that impacts upon its education system. The multicultural composition of its people and having to educate children of different mother tongues in the English language is also an overriding challenge. Added to these is the issue of a relevant curriculum in a former colonised state whose education system has over many years been modeled on the Western system of schooling
Since Fiji gained independence status in 1970, there has been a tremendous surge in enrolment both at the primary and later at the secondary level. The country has a net enrolment rate of 98%. Since the 70s, a major concern of successive governments has been to ensure equality of access to educational services for all children. Now a more pressing need is the provision of a more relevant education for all young people.
The formal sector of the labour market has become saturated. Over the recent past the urban centres have become populated with unemployed youths who have completed secondary and tertiary education. The rise in unemployed youths has forced most of them to continue to be dependent on their parents increasing the financial burden on families.
Another trend is the under-performance of certain marginalsed groups. Currently, the education system is undergoing a transition period where policies are being formulated to effectively cater for the educational needs of certain groups of students.
The Ministry of Education faces the major challenge of trying to ensure greater equality of educational achievement among the various groups in Fijiís society. The differences in the levels of academic performance amongst these groups are not due primarily to any innate differences in ability. Rather, they are usually the outcomes of other variables that are not always easy to identify. This is a major challenge for Fiji with the continuous under-performance of Fijians in the external examinations, the lack of an inclusive curricula for students with special needs and the need to expand educational facilities for pre-school children.
Other major challenges include the provision of a relevant curriculum for students in the rural areas and also having to solve the problem of school dropouts. Recent studies have shown that the drop out rate for Years 1 to 6 is approximately 15% and for Years 1 to 12 the figure stands at 38%. In the effort to provide life skills for dropouts, it is evident that the development of a relevant curriculum will enable the school leavers to gain some form of useful employment with the skills acquired from the schools.
Another major challenge is the reduction of financial burdens on parents. The partnership between the state and the wider community is one of the distinguishing features of education in Fiji and in most developing countries where the standard of living is not as high, the task of having to educate children can be burdensome. The ideal scenario perhaps would be to move towards compulsory and free education. While tuition-free education has been granted to students from Year One to Year 11, other educational expenses are borne by the parents. However, whether government can afford free education is a major question to be addressed in a developing country like Fiji.
The major priority for government is to offer a relevant education of good quality - a system of education that will enable students to venture into self-employment activities and be less reliant on the formal sector of the labour market. This seems to be the best approach for a small island state like Fiji.
Another priority is the provision of equal opportunities for all students to education at all levels. Disparities in terms of educational opportunities amongst the various groups need to be reduced and eliminated so that all students have equal opportunities to education. There is definitely a need to address disparities in access and performance.
In conclusion, Fiji has now arrived at a juncture where there is a need to direct attention to more specific areas that need improvement. The time is now right for a more focused approach. More than ever before, the Government and the Ministry of Education are now fully committed to enabling all students to fulfill their potential through access to good quality education.