SPEECH: HON. PRIME MINISTER JOSAIA VOREQE BAINIMARAMA’S SPEECH AT THE OPENING OF THE FIJI PRINCIPALS ASSOCIATION CONFERENCE

The Honourable Minister for Education,
Office Bearers of the Fiji Principals Association,
School Principals,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Bula vinaka and a very good morning to you all.

There is no sector more important to my Government than the education sector – the determination we all share to ensure that our children and young people get the best possible start in life. And provide them with the skills they need to make the most of their lives and contribute to the development of our nation.

Every school principal in Fiji plays an extremely important role in our national development. And it’s vital that we continue to attract the best possible people into the teaching profession and encourage them, over time, to take positions of leadership in our schools.

As Principals, it is your personal responsibility to inspire the dedication of your teachers. And the best way to inspire is by example. By dedicating yourselves to the children and the quality of their education, you are dedicating yourselves to Fiji’s future. You are shaping the next generation of leaders, and that is an enormous responsibility.

In order to fulfill this responsibility you need to hold your teachers and staff accountable. Our teachers are role models for our children, and they must be held to high standards. Inappropriate conduct, such as the drinking of grog on school grounds, should always be condemned. Such practices need to be discouraged as they have no place near our children’s education.

We all know that the quality of an individual principal can make or break a school. Get a bad one and the entire school suffers. Because a second rate principal usually means a second rate school. A school deprived of proper leadership and direction and the role models our children need to succeed themselves. Men and women of character, integrity, judgment, a passion for learning and imparting that knowledge to others.

Yet we all know that if a school has a good principal, miracles can happen and do. That school may be isolated, deprived of resources and be among the least likely to excel. Yet with the right person, it can sometimes be a beacon for the entire education system.

I was very inspired earlier in the year by the story of the Cicia High School in Lau and the astonishing 100 per cent pass rate of its students in the Fiji School Leaving Certificate. How could this have happened in a relatively small school in one of the most isolated parts of Fiji? How could it have achieved such excellence? And then I read the story of its principal, Isikeli Karikaritu, and the way in which he had motivated the entire school – staff and students. How he got them to believe in themselves. Got his teachers to perform in the classroom in a way that may have surprised even them. And got his students thinking “yes we can”. We can be as good, if not better, than anyone else in Fiji.

Cicia High School is now an example for the entire education system. It tells us that we can achieve excellence even in a developing country such as ours with limited resources. It is the quality of the people in it – their dedication and pride. And I want to pay tribute today to Isikeli Karikaritu and thank him – on behalf of the Fijian people – for his leadership. He is a role model for every principal in Fiji – a hero of the teaching profession.

Teaching is a wonderful calling. In fact, I think it is one of the most important callings of all. If we have dedicated teachers in our education system, we can achieve many great things as a nation. You are moulding our young people. And I want you all at this conference to rededicate yourselves to this task. Rededicate yourselves to the pursuit of excellence. To lead your schools with wisdom, patience and dedication. To work to get the best out of your teachers and your students. To lead our education revolution and be at the forefront of taking Fiji forward.

As Fiji moves into the future, it is important that our education system moves with it. We need to move with times if we are to remain competitive on the international stage. As the world changes, so must the curriculum in our schools. That duty is on our principals and our teachers to adopt new standards and curriculum that will be also facilitated by the Ministry of Education. Teaching outdated material will keep Fiji stuck in the past. It is your job to make sure our students are ready for the future.
My Government is also keen to implement programs that foster digital literacy. To help students become responsible for how they utilize technology to interact with the world around them. This is only possible with the support of our principals and teachers – help make your students embrace rapidly changing technology. This means that all our principals and teachers need to become digital literate themselves.

Moving Fiji forward also means modernizing our way of thinking. In our schools especially, we need to value merit and reward students achievements. It means encouraging an attitude of excellence in and outside of the classroom. It means teaching students to value their educational success.

Principals, I also want you to lead your schools with love. We must do more – a lot more – to nurture and care for our children and especially our young people as they go through the more challenging phases of their lives.

Many Fijians will share my grief and dismay at the suicides of three primary school students last week. I want to spare their families the ordeal of their Prime Minister raking over all the details in public of this tragic, tragic, event. Except to say to these families – and especially the parents of these children – that the nation is with you in your grief.

Our hearts are also broken. We send you our love and our sympathy. And we are asking ourselves the same questions that you are. How did this come to happen? What drove these children to such despair? How could we not see that they were so troubled? Why couldn’t we reach out and save them?

While there is nothing I can say to ease the pain of these families and so many others in which young people have taken their lives, we need as a nation to act and act decisively. We need to confront the national crisis of child and youth suicide and resolutely do something about it. And I want all of you – the heads of the nation’s schools – to take the lead.

Today happens to be World Suicide Prevention Day. And I’m pleased that the Government is already taking a lead in drawing attention to the causes of suicide and what we can do about it. Some of my ministers are attending a march in Suva to highlight this crisis as it applies to Fiji. Where it has reached shocking proportions and where we urgently need a much more decisive effort to deal with it.

Of the 89 suicides in Fiji so far this year, 10 of these were of children under the age of 16. Another 20 young people between the ages of 17 and 25 also took their own lives. So 30 suicides of people under the age of 25 in just eight months.

Of the 80 attempted suicides in Fiji over the same period, 7 of these involved children under the age of 16 and another 35 were aged between 17 and 25. It is truly a national issue among our young and we should have a maximum national effort to address it.

Principals, Ladies and Gentlemen,
I’m ashamed to admit that it is only now – as a society – that Fiji is starting to adequately acknowledge this crisis. And to institute the kind of measures that should have been put in place years ago to protect our young people. To give them somewhere to turn in their despair. To give them a shoulder to lean on. Someone to talk to and help them through their problems.

Since January this year through the Ministry of Women, Children and Poverty Alleviation, we have started a Child Helpline in Fiji and I want to refer in some detail to this service. It is a phone number that children and young people can call and get help. To talk to counselors trained in dealing with the many challenges our young people face. And especially when they are depressed and contemplating self-harm.

The number is 1325 and calls to it are free from any landline or mobile. I appeal to the media to make this known more widely. If you have a newspaper or magazine, please publicise this number – 1325 – or publish the leaflet of the organization, Medical Services Pacific that runs this important service in partnership with the Fijian Government.

If you have a television station or radio station, please run community service announcements to get this number – 1325 – etched in the minds of every young person. And I appeal to the media generally to do as many stories as possible on the services that are available for children and young people at risk. They need to know there is someone there no matter how deep their despair. They need to know that help is as close as a phone call. And despite it’s name, the Child Help Line isn’t only for children but every young Fijian under the age of 30.

In the first eight months of this year – this service took 400 genuine calls from young people who needed help and got it. Who were counseled and referred to other agencies for assistance. So it’s already very clear that it is a valuable tool in our fight against youth suicide. At the moment, it is operating from 6.00am to 6.00pm, 7 days a week and we intend to make it available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week in the near future.

I am also instructing every instrument of Government to refine and improve its response to youth suicide and suicide generally. We already have a range of counseling services and initiatives. But whether it is the Ministries of Health, Children or Education, we need to do a lot more. And I want the nation’s schools to take a lead.

I ask you as principals to make it a priority to identify children or young people in your own schools who are at risk. The child who may be struggling because of pressure at school or at home. The child who may already be showing signs of distress.

Consider starting a mentoring program in your school to assist the vulnerable. Talk to these children yourself. Do what you can to relieve the pressure on them. Talk to their parents and try to work through whatever problems may be happening at home. Encourage a culture of openness in your own school. Of children being able to come to you or their teachers with their problems.

Above all, don’t set unnecessarily high demands that will make the more vulnerable students feel marginalised. Never humiliate them in front of their peers. Treat them with respect, with care and with understanding.

I also have a special message to the nation’s students. I always urge children when I visit their schools to care for each other and to look out for those who are smaller than others or are sick and disabled. But sometimes even the most successful children can be deeply unhappy beneath their confident facades.

All of you can help by watching out for someone who may be showing signs of depression or vulnerability. They may be withdrawn. They may no longer be communicating like they used to. But if you suspect that something is seriously wrong, don’t hesitate to tell your teachers or other community leaders. And be especially nice to them. Because teasing, harassing or bullying other children can have tragic consequences.

Fiji is a caring nation. We pride ourselves on looking out for each other. Looking after each other. But this crisis of child and youth suicide is happening in spite of that. And at every level of Fijian society, I appeal for an urgent and decisive response. And a more sensitive and understanding approach.

Last Sunday, we celebrated Father’s Day. But for too many Fijian fathers, it was a day of unbearable pain. Of remembering the child they had lost to suicide. A child that was lost to us all.

Principals, Ladies and Gentlemen,
A great nation is only truly great because of the care it shows for its people and the care they show each other and especially the young and vulnerable. Let us join hands and lead a more effective national response to this crisis and especially in our schools. We can do better and we must do better for your children and young people. And with that thought, I officially declare the 2015 Fiji Principals’ Association Conference open.

Vinaka vakalevu- Thank you.