Education and neo-colonialism in Nauru
Alan defected from mainstream education to the Steiner movement soon after graduating from a British teachers' training college in the late '60s. After a few years' service in the old country, he and his wife Ruth emigrated to New Zealand, where they helped found Auckland's first Steiner school (their daughter has blogged about her time at Michael Park Primary here).
Although he broke from the Steiner movement more than a decade ago, after deciding it was hopelessly contaminated by the dogmatism and the peculiar supernatural beliefs of its founder, Alan has remained a critic of mainstream education in the West. He recently opened a twitter page, where he launches broadsides against the educational establishment, and polemicises in favour of the practices of Silkwood Independent School, the Queensland institution where he works as an advisor on curriculum.
Alan came to the Steiner movement as a refugee from the rote learning of facts and figures and the corporal punishment which were the stock in trade of schools in the 1960s. The strap and cane may have been banished from most Western schools in the twenty-first century, but Alan is convinced that the 'National Standards' testing which is being foisted on teachers in Britain and in Australasia is forcing a return to the authoritarian and inefficient methods of rote learning. "The idea that all children can learn at the same rate is a nonsense" he told me the other night, as we sipped coffee and waited for a call from the hospital down the road. "And the idea that something as subtle as early learning can be measured by something as crude as a statistic is also nonsense. National Standards forces teachers to spend most of their time feeding children information to help them pass tests which measure nothing. And the kids who are out of sync with the 'learn the same way on the same day' model demanded by National Standards - the kids who are ahead of the pack and the kids who are left behind, academically speaking - well, those kids make trouble, and classrooms become dysfunctional. Kids have to learn at their own pace - and the curriculum has to engage with their interests, their world, their cultures."
Alan's views on National Standards certainly seem to be shared by many educators in this country: teachers' unions have taken a strong line against the system, and a recent study suggested that a third of schools are refusing outright to implement it.
I didn't want to share Vaughan Rapatahana's articles about the education system on Nauru with Alan earlier this week, because I thought he was under enough stress waiting for the birth of his grandson. The idiocies being perpetrated under the name of education in Nauru might have been too much for him to bear.
I posted Vaughan's article about his experience at a Nauruan school in the late '70s and early '80s last week. The following article, which I've abridged slightly, was written after Vaughan's return visit to the struggling island-state in 2010, and reveals that, partly as a result of the neo-colonial policies of Australia, the shortcomings of the Nauruan school system have become even more pronounced in recent years. If National Standards is homogenising education and alienating children in the West, then the imposition of an utterly alien curriculum and the refusal to engage with local culture has led to the mass desertion of Nauruan schools.
Vaughan's article isn't only a lament: drawing on his knowledge of New Zealand's te reo Maori and kohanga reo movements, he makes some suggestions about how the sorry situation in Nauruan schools might be turned around. I think Vaughan and my father-in-law should have a beer sometime...]
A Personal Reflection: Return to The Republic, February, 2010
Thirty years after my stint as a native-speaking teacher of English in Nauru, I returned for a visit, an update. It was the least that I could do to give a fair appraisal of the island. I undertook to read as much as I could about Nauru, especially pertaining to English-language education...
Many things had changed by 2010. Many. Yet, in a sense, many things were still the same. Nauruans remained good people, with what would have to be unlimited patience, given the disastrous economic tsunami that wiped out their salaries and resources for about ten years from 1995-2005, the ramifications of which continue to plague the island. Lots of administrative paperwork and proclamations – many available on the web – had been churned out, with little real, visceral effect, for example the 1995 Nauru Curriculum Footpath, and the 1997 Nauru Education for the 21st Century, whilst politics remained a crazy game of musical chairs between – among others - Marcus Stephen and Ludwig Scotty.
A lot of rain had fallen recently, and days were overcast, with only flashes of the diurnal blistering heat I remembered.
The airport runway was longer – courtesy of a New Zealand work crew some years before. I had always used to wonder how aeroplanes ever managed to land there without sliding into the sea.
However there was also a lot missing:
- Most Kiribati and Tuvaluans had been returned to their respective homelands in 2006, when it was apparent that there was no money to back-pay them. This repatriation – and their payment – was organized by the South Pacific Forum. The workers' living quarters had subsequently been taken over by Nauruan residents.
- There was no Staff Club anymore – it had been transmogrified into a church. An absurd irony, if you reflect for just a moment.
- There was no more Bank of Nauru: apparently money-mismanagement had made it insolvent.
- There was no more grocery store in the Civic Centre, in fact not much at all in the Civic Centre these days. The best grocery store by far now is Capelles, which is flourishing and four times its size in 1979 ... it’s also a hotel. And a car hire centre too, or so it says outside.
- There is only one aeroplane in Our Airlines, but the replacement for Air Nauru is a fine little airline. I found it very professional, serving very good food with convivial staff ... Actually, Our Airlines does have a second plane, wearing Norfolk Island livery, which is utilized as a charter between Norfolk Island and the Australian mainland.
- There is no more expatriate housing, except for some non-European Nauru Secondary School staff, who are put up at the sadly rundown and expensive Menen Hotel. Our lights went off one night and no land line telephones were available – mind you, most people now used mobiles. There was no TV reception whatsoever and an interesting minimalist menu was available, although the food was tasty.
- All expatriate homes were returned to Nauru in 2000 and many of the ones the expatriates used to live in - including those in upscale Menen Terrace – are now back in Nauruan habitation. Some houses, however, including the very first home we lived in way back in 1979, were decrepit and overgrown and had no inhabitants whatsoever.
- There is also no more Menen channel: now there is a newish (courtesy of Japan) boat harbour there ... I couldn’t swim unhampered by rock pinnacles like I used to, at least in Anibare Bay.
- There were no more Harleys or loud pumping SUVs and Landrovers. Now there were only small-cc motorbikes and a noticeable dearth of brand new motor vehicles. Mind you, there was also a dearth of empty beer cans. Nauru seemed to me to be much tidier than when I first lived there. Much quieter too, I guess. Less to celebrate nowadays, I surmise...
The Police Commissioner is an Australian, and I was told that the jail is full. A vicious murder or two had blighted the country recently. In 2004, in return for $22.5million over two years, Australia actually installed a Secretary of Finance and appointed a Police Commissioner … there are very strong shades of re-colonization in the republic nowadays. I even heard further rumours of the current Australian administration approaching Nauru to once more ‘host’ the infamous ‘refugee centre’, the Pacific’s own Guantanamo Bay!
New Government House/buildings have been built since I was last there. They are nice, to coin a word.
Kayser College now has classes from pre-school (called ‘infant school’ there) through to Year 10. We also drove past a new Nauru College for primary students.
Nauru Secondary School had been temporarily relocated to the former ‘Pacific Solution’ refugee camp, while a multimillion dollar newer and larger NSS was being built with AusAID revenue. It was due to open in March, 2010 during a visit of Taiwan's Premier. (Taiwanese aid to Nauru is also apparent in the pig and chicken station not far from Capelles.) Apparently there is lots of truancy now – even more than when I was there. I guess that kids (and parents) think ‘what’s the point of going to school?’ - particularly when over 90% of the population are without work...
I heard later in 2010, that yes, the new school has been reopened on the site of the old school.
In 2009, Papua-New Guinean teachers complained bitterly about a lack of consistent salary payment, about being accommodated at a Menen Hotel with no cooking facilities, about racist taunting, about everything being ‘in Nauruan’ language', and about their ‘original’ contracts being abrogated on their arrival on the island. All of this sounded very familiar.
The situation of education in Nauru is, perhaps, best summarized in a National Assessment report from 2004:
Despite the substantive investment in education over 36 years, there is still a huge gap in quantity of trained workers across the various disciplines … At present the reality of the education system is somewhat different from the ideal. The education system in Nauru is failing to produce Nauruans competent to deal with the future. There is a lack of continuity, relevance and of a culturally appropriate curriculum – which, combined contribute to academic failure, loss of identity and sense of purpose. Schools and training facilities are dilapidated and poorly equipped, and there is over-crowding in classrooms. As a matter of fact, significant numbers of Nauruans are illiterate in English and have a poor command of Nauruan. Collaboration between teachers and parents is intermittent … (pp. 32-37).
The Director of Education is yet another Australian trying to bring in – absurdly – the Australian Capital Territory (Canberra) curriculum! What the relevance of this is to a sovereign independent state like the Republic of Nauru, with its own indigenous culture and language, totally escapes me. It is now 2010...
Nauruan is still NOT an official language! There are conflicts over its approved historical version, over its orthography. Perhaps Maori education in Aotearoa could be utilized as an exemplar: Maori have, to some extent, regained control of their education, their mana, via their own language, te reo Maori, as taught by Maori in nga kura kaupapa (schools with Maori subject matter taught in Maori by Maori). However, this model is exactly that – merely a model. Nauru can streamline its own system so as to best support, maintain and nurture into full fruition its own language. It surely must be tino rangatiratanga (total self-determination) time for Nauru.
There is an expectation of five more years of phosphate mining and 25 years of secondary mining on Nauru. In early 2010 the Government had stabilized somewhat – despite the possibility of another coup d’etat when we were there, which thankfully did not transpire - and Nauruans now felt the water at about chest level, and not over their nostrils, like they had just a few years earlier, when the country had been listed by the USA as a ‘rogue state’, because the many passport selling and money laundering schemes extant there.
No. Not drowning anymore, but the water swilling around is still far too deep and there are too many sharks circling...
Nauruans remain friendly people. When we ran out of gas one afternoon there was no problem in finding someone willing to just drop everything and go and buy some more gas for us – and they had to be almost forced into taking some dollars. I spoke to loquacious (in more than one language), intelligent locals – among them Maria Gaiyabu, Julie Olsson, Tim Angimea, Paul Finch, Chinese restauranters – people who are more than capable of handling their island’s own destiny.
Yet, when once there was happy singing everywhere, now Nauruans still sing, “but the happy songs have gone”. Then there is Topside, the old phosphate-mining area...Topside remains a bitter ironic symbol, a devastated landscape ultimately only serving to make non-Nauruan fields greener, more fertile, richer. Like daytime vampires the colonial powers robbed one land to make their own plains flourish. I have alluded to Australian recolonization already, but the Peoples Republic of China, Taiwan and now it seems also Russia are also rubbing their hands and looking at Nauru – and an Indian-run private company, Getax, is also involved in supposed financial finagling …
My hope is that the Republic of Nauru can remain on its track to stability, that it can gain full control over its destiny, incorporating a system of education of relevance through a medium of relevance. Nauru did not ask for the relentless manifest and latent colonial and postcolonial pillaging of its physical, mental and spiritual resources.
As of now, Nauru remains a signal symbol of rampant neo-colonialist greed. The agents, especially, of the English language are big bad bullies indeed.