Tongan school children burn torches during the ancient Tupakapakanava ceremony to honour the coronation of King George Tupou V in Nuku'alofa on July 30, 2008. Some 30,000 torches illuminated the coastline of the archipelago to herald the annointment of the 23rd ruler of the South Pacific's only absolute monarchy. (Torsten Blackwood/AFP/Getty Images)

Kaniva commentary September 4, 2020

The Tongan government’s decision to raise the school leaving age to 18 is welcome.

The Ministry wants a higher standard of education for every student and having every student stay at school will help, especially as we face the prospect of a post-Covid 19 world that may be very different from the one we live in now.

However, the kingdom faces a number of problems around education. It is clear that the Ministry cannot be expected to manage everything on its own and that parents and students must also contribute.

The Ministry’s actions come in the wake of the release of a new UNESCO report, Education in a post-COVID world: Nine ideas for public action.

“Education needs to be at the heart of a post-Covid world,” the report says.

“For that future we need boldness of thought and courageous action now.”

Among its suggestions, the report urges governments to strengthen education as a common good, arguing that education is a strong weapon in fighting inequality.

It said education systems around the world had been best able to respond to the Covid-9 pandemic when there were strong ties with families and communities.

It also said students should also be encouraged  to take part in decisions about education.

As we shall see, these are all issues that come into focus when looking at the Education Ministry’s announcement and some of the problems confronting education in Tonga.

Academic talent

Tonga has a formidable reservoir of academic talent.

The kingdom has a reputation for having more PhDs  per head of population than any other country on earth.

Every story we have written about a successful Tongan doctoral student shows the same key elements: A student’s willingness to study and apply themselves, whether in high school or at university, a clear goal and strong inspiration and support from their parents and family.

This does not mean that every student can or should do a doctorate, but it does mean that students should be encouraged to choose the best path, whether in science, the arts, business or vocational studies and realise that in many ways the future of Tonga will depend on their educational achievements. Their families and their community must stand behind them.

Obstacles

Unfortunately, there are a number of obstacles standing in the way of the Ministry’s vision of a higher standard of education for everybody.

One obstacle is made up of parents who refuse to abide by the law.

As the Education Ministry’s Truancy and Reconciliation Division leader Kalafitoni Latu said this week, the department is being challenged by parents who refuse to take their children to school and claiming that their children receive their education at home.

There is also an unacceptably high number of students skipping school. If they are absent for more than three days  a notice is sent to their  to parents and guardians.

The reasons for their truancy also need to be addressed. These can range from a lack of support from parents who may be poorly educated themselves, thinking that girls should not  be educated, or thinking that their children should give up school to help on the farm.

The Education Ministry and schools must find ways to reach out to these parents and change their attitudes.

Student success has been a headache for the Ministry. In January we reported that the department was concerned by a 10% drop in the pass rate for the Form Six certificate.

The Ministry has also been worried by falling enrolment in high school science, mathematics and commerce classes.

Their concerns were echoed in February by Dr Sangata Kaufononga, the first Tongan to obtain a PhD in Chemistry. Dr Kaufanonga said if students had the potential to make a career in science, technology, engineering or maths (STEM), they should go for it.

She urged the Ministry to investigate what could be done to promote the interest of the students in the subject.

She cited her father as an inspiration and her family for their support in her studies.

“Further education was always a priority to me as it was the golden key to unlock future opportunities for my family,” she said.

In its vision for the future, UNESCO has also called for greater scientific literacy in school curricula as a way to fight misinformation and struggle against the denial of scientific knowledge about the Covid-19 pandemic.

One critical issue that has to be addressed is the continuing problem with school violence. Many times these problems seem to occur because students – and in some cases staff – cling on to what are often ancient and frankly pointless rivalries.

In 2013 school violence escalated to a point where 147 current and former students of Tupou College, and a teacher from the college, appeared in court over attacks on Tonga College students.

The then police commissioner, Grant O’Fee, said Tonga needed to ask why school boys were acting like out of control gang members.

Sadly, seven years later  conflicts between school remain a serious problem in Tonga. Earlier this year in the Supreme Court Lord Chief Justice Whitten sent a school boy to jail for a year for his role in an attack on Tupou College students.

Education is the key to the future of Tonga in many respects. Smarter, better educated students who have the skills to do well in the sciences, the arts, business studies or the vocational field will be important to the kingdom’s progress.

Setting the school leaving age at 18 is a good step along the road to its goal of giving every pupil the chance at a better education. Now the Ministry needs the support of parents, communities and students to make that vision a reality.

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