We must educate our children for tomorrow’s economy – not yesterday’s

By Abdulla Rifau

When President Yameen took office three years ago, education in the Maldives was creaking. Despite more than three decades of reform many of our children were leaving school without the skills to earn a living. The Maldives first tried to modernise traditional education in 1978 – creating a single unified system across the islands. This saw real progress being made: literacy rates jumped from 70% to over 90% and virtually all children were enrolled in primary education. However, after the Tsunami progress seemed to stall. Despite millions in foreign aid being made available, the previous government failed to advance education reform.

The Yameen Government inherited an education system in crisis: two-thirds of our teachers outside Male were untrained, there were poor facilities and a lack of equipment in most island schools, students with special needs were being ignored, and barely two-thirds of pupils transferred from primary to secondary education.

Over the last three years we have been dedicated to putting children first. We are finishing the job of education reform. Our ambitious transformation project aims to give the next generation the skills they – and our economy – need. To that end our education reforms have been driven by three key principles: expanding access, raising quality and creating opportunity.

Expanding access means ensuring that every child in the Maldives receives a high quality education. We are committed to both increasing secondary school numbers and extending the school age, ensuring that all children are catered for. As part of this agenda we have brought the pre-school sector under the Education Ministry. Now, standards can be monitored and services improved. At the other end of school system, we have introduced new training programmes to ensure children either remain in education or vocational training until they are 18. We put in place a policy guaranteeing that all children who achieve 3 A Level passes, or equivalent, have the opportunity of tertiary education. In the last two years, this has seen over 2,500 students receive loans and nearly 200 given full scholarships.

But extending the scope of our education system is not enough. We have to improve its quality. That is why we have made so much effort to raise the standard of teaching in our schools, modernise the curriculum and upgrade facilities across the islands. For decades the Maldives has relied on foreign teachers, with most Maldivian teachers having no formal training. As a result, too many of our children have been taught with old-fashioned methods that do not equip them for the challenges of the modern world.

Under our reforms, for the first time ever, there is now a minimum standard for teachers: they must have a diploma. Consequently, we have launched a retraining programme which has seen 1236 teachers qualify for diplomas in the last year. This – together with a new salary structure for teachers, with increments based on the standard of teaching – will drive up quality in our schools.

Not only have our children suffered from low standards of teaching. They have often been taught in schools in run-down and cramped facilities, forced to use out of date and inadequate equipment. We are now rolling out a new programme to identify basic resource requirements. It is part of our commitment to ensure that all schools have the equipment and land they need – starting with the 213 most-needy schools by the end of this year.

Our schools should create new opportunities for all our children. But too many are left with only the most basic skills in reading and writing. The future success of the Maldives in the global economy will depend on our ability to boost the skills of our young people. To increase our national skills base, we have been phasing in a new vocational programme for Grade 10 pupils. 62 schools across 14 islands have participated over the last two years. Another 711 are currently being trained.

This package of measures is aimed at finally completing the job of education reform started nearly 40 years ago. We want every child to leave school with the skills that they need for life in tomorrow’s global economy. We must diversify into new fields beyond tourism and fishing. We are not quite there as yet, but we have made real progress in the last three years. We are determined to finish the job of giving the next generation the education system that they deserve.

Editor's Note: Abdulla Rifau is the Member of Parliament (PPM) for the Maafannu South (Male) Constituency.