‘Something Must Be Done’ … in English too.

Readers of this blog are only too familiar with my views on Moroccan education, a subject which preoccupies me both because it is my chief professional concern; but also, and more importantly, because it lies right at the heart of Morocco’s most intractable problems. Education, literacy and language form the tight little Gordian knot at the root of Morocco’s failure to thrive, and it is a knot that desperately needs untying.

Or (as is more traditional with Gordian knots) it needs a sword slicing deftly through the middle, and this is what HM the King had a go at doing this week in his address to the nation for his birthday and the 60th anniversary of the ‘Revolution of the King and the People.’ With considerable vim he laid into the performance of the present government, saying clearly that education today is in a worse state than it was in twenty years ago, that the government has in effect squandered its inheritance from the previous administration, and that education in general and curriculum in particular, have been made political footballs. “We cannot but ask this pressing question: Why is it that so many of our young people cannot fulfill their legitimate professional, material and social aspirations?” Indeed.

His answers are simple enough, and correct. The first is “syllabi and curricula that do not tally with the requirements of the job market.” The second is “disruptions caused by changing the language of instruction from Arabic, at the primary and secondary levels, to some foreign languages, for the teaching of scientific and technical subjects in Higher Education.” This latter remark means simply that language policy at all levels of education is doing serious damage to students’ ability to learn effectively at university, and that the shift from Arabic at primary school through a variety of languages at secondary, to French in scientific subjects at university, is damaging. Only 37% of candidates passed the baccalaureate this year, and many, perhaps most, students are arriving at university without the language competence to study effectively in French, or in Arabic; and they are leaving university unable to find a place in the job market. “Educational institutions … should not be factories that produce unemployable graduates, particularly in certain obsolete subjects.”

And then the knub: “Training should be reinforced by making the most of the positive, distinctive feature of Moroccans, namely their natural open-mindedness and their desire to discover other cultures and to learn foreign languages. Moroccans should, therefore, be encouraged to learn and master foreign languages in addition to the official languages specified in the Constitution.” He continues with a call for return to the principles of the National Charter for Education and Training, and chides his government for its handling of education – “some of its basic components, namely aspects related to syllabus change, primary school curriculum and high schools of excellence, have been dropped without consulting with the parties concerned.“  The implication is clear: through the rejection, for what some commentators consider doctrinaire ideological reasons, of many of the reform initiatives of the previous government, education has been made a party political football. “I belong to no political party,” thunders HM, “and take part in no election. The only party I belong to, thank God, is Morocco.”

When he adds that “The educational sector should, therefore, not be included in the sphere of purely political matters, nor should its management be subjected to outbidding tactics or party politics,” he means it to be understood that this is exactly what he believes has been going in over the last year and a half, and that it must stop. So bad, in his view, is the state of education that more and more families who can ill afford to do so are “compelled to pay huge fees for their children to study in foreign schools or private education institutions in order to avoid the pitfalls of the state school and enroll their children in an efficient system.”  And lest the point be missed, he rubs a little salt in the wound with very positive remarks about the achievements of Skills and Vocational Education; and goes out of his way to compliment the Plan d’Urgence which, although late in the day, demonstrated the last government’s commitment to planning and resourcing structural change.

Whew. And the instrument of correction is to be the Higher Council for Education, Training and Scientific Research foreseen in the July 2011 Constitution but still unimplemented. There is perhaps some frustration at the speed at which the organic laws that implement the constitution are being passed: one must assume that this one will now whizz through the Parliament at last.  And in the meanwhile, in a widely welcomed appointment, the former Minister of Justice and Ambassador to Spain, Omar Azziman, is named pro tem to run the sadly moribund existing body, the Higher Council for Education (tout court), and make it once again the motor for education change that it was until the death of its last president, Meziane Belfikh, in May 2010. This body will carry the torch until its successor is up and running.

It’s not an easy time to be an education official in Morocco, with the crosswinds of party ideology and royal impatience causing great turbulence. But clear-sighted and committed officials at the Ministry of National Education have been quietly at work on implementing exactly the kind of changes that HM foresees in his speech. Within two days of the address, Fouad Chafiqi, the Director of Curriculum, gave an interview to Medias24 in which he laid out prospective changes, of a serious and necessary radicalism. It is headlined New School Years 2013 and 2014: French and English to become the languages of instruction. Dr Chafiqi sets out a programme that answers the royal case with precision and flair in what the writer calls “une refonte globale du programme scolaire,” a complete reboot of the educational programme. He stresses the leading role of the newly invigorated National Council for Education under Omar Azziman, and says that from the 2013-24 school year “languages will be at the centre of all programmes.” And perhaps most radical of all, at the baccalaureate – first French (2013), and then English (2014), will cease to be taught as subjects in the scientific and mathematical branch and will become languages of instruction. This is a huge and powerful step into the future, and greatly to be welcomed. French of course already is a language of instruction in the scientific stream of secondary, so the real innovation here is adding English, the lingua franca of international communication, employability and research, as what must become an increasingly desirable option in the Moroccan education market.

As far as English is concerned, I am of course also very pleased to know that “the Ministry of National Education profits from the expertise of the British Council, with which it is in partnership for this project.” We are proud to be seen in this light, and to have the opportunity of supporting progressive educational reform in Morocco.


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