Education Minister Dr Musthafa Lufthy is facing a no-confidence motion in parliament later this month, a move led by Fares-Maathodaa MP Ibrahim Muttalib and sparked by a proposal from the Ministry’s steering committee to make Islam and Dhivehi optional subjects at A-Level. Dr Luthfy spoke to Minivan News on Sunday.
JJ Robinson: The Education Ministry has been heavily criticised for a proposal that Dhivehi and Islam be made optional subjects at A-Level in the new curriculum. Why do you think this happened?
Dr Musthafa Lufthy: The curriculum was developed in 1984, and there has been no major overall or revision since then. We have brought in changes now and then, but this is first time the we have embarked on a mega-revision of the curriculum.
The new curriculum we are envisioning will be very much different from the old curriculum and will be more relevant to the current society and also to the future of the Maldives.
JJ: Why do you think the A-Level Islam and Dhivehi subjects are proving so controversial?
ML: There are many changes in the present proposal, and one of the propositions is that all the subjects in higher secondary (A-Level) will be optional. The intention is to give students many different subject options, so they are not forced to take some subjects – rather they have the freedom to choose whatever they want.
That was the initial proposition. But it was taken very seriously by a group of people – initially we did not think it would be such an issue for these people. [On average] around 2000 students choose higher education every year, and all the rest, out of 10,000 students, do not.
We are taking about these 2000 students, not the rest. Previously we have had debates on whether we should teach primary grades in English or Dhivehi – but there was no enthusiasm for teaching in the Dhivehi language. Many people wanted to teach in English.
I think the Ministry’s steering committee did not think the proposal to make Dhivehi and Islam optional at A-Level would become such a big issue – it would not introduced this year or next, it would be in new curriculum.
JJ: The proposal to make these subjects optional is being perceived by some in the community as an assault on national identity – why do you think this has happened?
ML: I think there is a certain group of people who actually think that it is their responsibility and their duty to safeguard Maldivian culture and Maldivian religion, and that others are not treating this fairly.
But in fact we, as the educationalists, we are also taking care of our culture and religion and trying to train our students to become world citizens, rather than narrowing their perspective.
That may be one of the reasons why they have suspicions that we are not trying to do justice to the religion or language [of the Maldives], and that is obviously untrue.
JJ: Why make them optional? To encourage more students to take A-Level? Is there any evidence to suggest a lack of option is discouraging students from taking on A-Levels?
ML: No, it is not because of that. A-Level requires five five passes at O-Level, and those students who do pass go for A-Level. The reason [behind the proposal] was to give them the freedom to choose – that was the main reason.
JJ: Do you think forcing students to study Islam and Dhivehi at A-Level may be discourgaging them from higher education?
ML: You would have to ask the students. [Dhivehi and Islam] are not favourable subjects, actually – one reason may be the way they are taught and the quality of teachers, and also the reason that these subjects are not required to pursue higher education. Perhaps due to these reasons students do not give them equal attention as they do to other subjects.
JJ: Do you think a likely outcome is the revision of these subjects to make them more appealing to students?
ML: It should be done. Whether the subjects will be optional or not, we will revise them, and the curriculum, and we will train our teachers to teach these subjects in a better manner. That will be done.
JJ: Given the outcry this has caused already, do you think it is at all likely these subjects will become optional?
ML: It is still open for discussion – we haven’t concluded discussions yet. But we know this will not happen yet, not for several years when the new curriculum is implemented. I am not actually making these decisions, it is done in consultation with many groups of people, and that depends on result of the consultation process.
JJ: What is the pass percentage of the 10,000 students who complete O-Level?
ML: 32 percent. Last year it was 27 percent.
JJ: A 32 percent pass rate sounds extremely low – why is it so low, and how does in compare with the region?
ML: Even when it is compared with the region, it is very low. One reason is that we are teaching in a foreign language (English), and teachers may not be as conversant in the language as those who teach in their mother-tongue – that is one reason.
The other reason is we have teachers from other countries who do not remain with the students for a long period of time, only two years before another teacher comes. So a change of teachers is frequent. And the other reason may be the quality of teachers we have – mainly primary grade teachers.
We still have a lot of untrained teachers, and also teachers who trained several years ago who are not up to the standard that we would require to implement a natural curriculum. With them we have come this far.
We are focusing on improving certain areas – and one focus is on teachers. We are doing a lot of work upgrading teachers using the internet, business learning, reactivating teacher resource centres in the atolls and establishing teacher in-service training at the Centre for Continuing Education.
JJ: How has O-Level pass rate trended historically?
ML: Gradually it has been moving upwards. but this is the first time there has been such a large jump (five percent).
JJ: What is the pass rate of those students who go on to do A-Levels?
ML: A-Level pass rate last year was 69 percent. In 2004, 1835 students went on to A-Level. In 2009 it was 3244 students.
JJ: It is still surprising to hear so few students go through to do A-Level – what kind of effect do you think this has on Maldivian society?
ML: That’s a very important question, and it’s a question that we need a good answer for.
When students finish Grade 10, and when they do not have many other avenues to go to for education, they remain in society and have two years before they become adults at 18 years. So they have two years of not being able to get a job, and this is also a crucial period in their physical development.
During this time they are not in a school and due to this I think there will be negative impact on their behaviour and also on society.
Because of this we are thinking of a new venture – we are trying to keep students in the system until they are 18. We can do that by diversifying our curriculum – some can do A-Level, some can go for other programmes such as foundation and certificate level courses, and through that proceed to higher education.
So there are many ways there can go to higher education, and not only GSCE. We are trying to create paths for them to follow – this can be done through public-private partnerships, such as with Villa College. They are teaching A-Level, about they are also teaching other foundation courses as well.
So students even if they do not pass in five subjects they can continue their education. This year we are going start this programme and later expand it to the atolls, and we are hoping all students will remain in the system until they are 18.
JJ: We have heard anecdotal reports that some parents are bringing in outside tuition or coaching to make up for lapses in the education system. Is there any monitoring of this outside tuition?
ML: Unfortunately there is no monitoring – we do not track how many students go to outside education, and I don’t think schools do that. But we are trying to change schools into one session schools – so one batch of students come to a schools.
Previously, with two sessions, there was no space for students to become involved in extracurricular activities or remedial tuition, but it will be different now we have four one session schools in Male. By doing this schools can provide necessary help and find time and space.
But even then, unless parents are fully confident of the quality of education, they will continue to send their children to private education. Even then there is competition – they want their children to be the best.
JJ: If the standards do not approve does that mean that later down the line there will be a class issue between parents who can afford private tuition for their children and those who cannot?
ML: I don’t think there will be a class issue that is not there right now. One of the aims of education is to reduce disparity between people. We are consciously assisting disadvantaged groups in the country. It is one of the functions of the education system to reduce that disparity.
JJ: Are you concerned about the upcoming no-confidence motion in parliament against you?
ML: I’m not concerned about the no-confidence vote, but I am concerned about the possibility – and it’s very unlikely – the possible discontinuity to the work we are doing right now if it happens.
JJ: How would it affect the Ministry’s work it is doing now?
ML: It will affect us very much, because we have started our work very enthusiastically. I have been in the education system for a long time ever since I started teaching in the atolls, and in various institutions in the country and I know the system very well – and I know the important things we haven’t done.
So I think with the team I have we will be able to improve the education system very much within our period of time. If a new person comes, he or she may not have the vision I have. Of course it will depend on the manifesto, but even then, how you see the work and how you see other people and deal with the situation, it all matters in how you get appropriate results.
JJ: Where has the support been coming from?
ML: I’m getting good from the President and the cabinet ministers, and I’m also working very hard in convincing parliamentarians [as to the merits] of my position. I have distributed documents to them – one is the curriculum framework and a letter to suggest this is only a draft and nothing has been finalised, and they know this is consultation and debate. I also sent another letter answering questions raised in the debate, so the parliamentarians know my views on this.
JJ: What happened with the collapse of Arabiyya School’s wall?
ML: I don’t know why this became a big issue. When a school becomes unsafe for students we have to find an alternative. When we found the school was unsafe for students to remain there we have to find an alternative, and we did after consultation with parents and school board, and we negotiated finance to rebuild the school building (demolition work began today).
JJ: The school says it has been complaining about the wall for 15 years.
ML: We have only been here 18 months.
JJ: Do you think it is less than a coincidence that this no-confidence motion arrived at the same time as your decision to leave the Gaumee Itthihaad Party (GIP) and sign with the [ruling] Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP)?
ML: I don’t think so. I think this was going on even then. It is just a coincidence.
JJ: For the record, what was behind your decision to leave GIP?
ML: This is a very important question that many people have asked. I was one of the architects of forming the Gaumee Itthihaad Party. At that time [Vice President] Dr Mohammed Waheed Hassan (also a GIP member) was not in the Maldives. We worked tirelessly to form the party and Dr Waheed joined at the later stages. He is a good friend of mine and we worked together in the education ministry. I have strong faith in him.
We started this party and were very lucky that because Dr Waheed was with us he was taken as a running mate by[President] Nasheed. It was because of that our party became one of the strong parties in the coalition.
Unfortunately my views and Dr Waheed’s views changed – my view was that we should assist the government as much as possible and try to work as hard as possible to implement the manifesto promises. Dr Waheed wanted to do the same but then our party started acting as an opposition type of party – criticising from outside the government. That I did not like.
I was telling them that we cannot do that because we are a coalition partner and we have to be with the government all the time – this is the second year of a new democracy and we have to work very hard to get results as soon as possible, and it is not helpful our party to [criticise] while we are one of the strong parties in the government. But this continued and I thought I would not be able to tolerate it any more – that why I thought only thing for me to do was join MDP. That was the reason.
JJ: What was your view when (GIP member) Mohamed Rasheed was removed from the post of Economic Development Minister? Were you worried?
ML: I was very worried because we had two members from our party in the cabinet and he is a close friend of mine. We worked closely in forming GIP and I had good support from him. I was very unhappy with the decision [to remove him]. We did not like that – we did not want any of our cabinet members to be removed in that way.
JJ: Now GIP has lost two of its cabinet members, what is your view of the party’s future?
ML: GIP is a party of many members. Even if a few members leave the party I think the party will continue. But it is very unfortunate that very strong members of the party had to leave it.
JJ: What was your opinion of Dr Waheed’s holding a meeting with members of the opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP)?
ML: My feeling was that it is OK for the Vice President to meet the opposition party members, but at that time when there was tension between the government and the opposition it was an unlucky coincidence. If it had happened at another time perhaps it would not have raised the concern that it did. For me it was OK to meet with them, but the time was not right.
JJ: The Human Rights Commission of the Maldives (HRCM) hasn’t quite got around to releasing its report on Lale Youth International School, the former principal of which is currently in court facing assault charges. Why wasn’t the Education Ministry monitoring the school?
ML: That school is one of the private partnership initiatives taken by the previous government. As soon as we started getting complaints we sent our supervision team there. The supervision team found some activities that should not happen in the school. We asked the police to investigate – that took some time.
We also informed HRCM, so two parties were investigating. In the meantime we followed suggestions given by the our own supervision team, while consulting with the Maldivian company (Biz Atoll) that took the school jointly with the Turkish group. We have seen their agreement – it is a very weak agreement. We revised the agreement in order to put in stronger conditions.
JJ: How seriously will the Ministry take the recommendations of the HRCM report, when it is released?
ML: We will take them very seriously. We have been very frank on this even from the initial stages – we were the people who reported this to the police. We have given the school conditions of our own to fulfill. So we will take those recommendations very seriously.
JJ: Is there a possibility that the school may be re-tendered and removed from Biz Atoll?
ML: I think there will be a possibility. In fact we consulted the Attorney General’s office on this before that report, thinking along that line.
JJ: We received many comments concerning the Lale case, that if the government is so serious about public-private partnerships but these sorts of thing can occur in a school, it doesn’t inspire public confidence in such partnerships. How do you address this?
ML: There is public confidence in public-private partnerships, like Villa International High School. I think parents and students are very happy about the progress of this school. These do inspire public confidence in public-private partnerships. The Lale case was an agreement done long before we came in [in government] and the agreements are not the kind we are doing now. It was a very simple agreement.
JJ: Was there any evidence of corruption in that agreement?
ML: I don’t know. It not fair for me to say. I haven’t investigated that part of it. I haven’t seen the report – only the draft. I think on our part we have taken Lale school issue very seriously and we have been doing work in order to change the situation. We are one of the group that brought this case to the independent authorities.
But these things should be reflected more in the report – the activities the Ministry has done. We are the people who know the schooling – we should know the students and the parents – we are professionals in this regard.
JJ: If you are voted out in parliament’s no-confidence motion, what will you go on to do afterwards?
ML: I have to think about it. There are different things I can do – I was in the previous government as Tourism Minister before I was transferred and resigned. These are not so complicated things. Life is like that.