This week, I am writing an open letter to the Ministry of Education, as the parent of a child with a learning disability. This is not theory. It is the raw frustration and discontent with a system that is unjust and antiquated.
Before that, however, I have the pleasure of highlighting another Transport Board driver for his stellar service. He is driver 2640, affectionately called Oats by the children of Queen’s College. They say he turns the bus around corners like he is stirring a big pot of oats, and he looks out for them like a father figure.
My son got the benefit of Oats’ caring a few weeks ago when he forgot his lunch bag on the bus. Oats saw it rolling around in the bus and fetched it. He called in a report, so that when my son telephoned the bus station he could be told his flask had been found. Then 2640 ensured he kept the flask and personally returned it the next day.
I am touched by your kindness, Oats. Thank you for being a good worker and a kind heart.
It is no secret by now that I am in no way supportive of the Common Entrance Examination. Eleven is the onset age of puberty; and at this age children suffer headaches and knee aches, and are generally unwell, as their bodies make the physical adjustments for adulthood.
Additionally, children discover they can have attraction to the opposite sex. They begin to be caught up with little flirtations and trying to renegotiate how to interact with the opposite sex. While they are dealing with the physical and emotional changes, we pile on the pressure of this examination.
As if all this is not enough, the children with special needs have their own added challenges. Barbados does not have an adequate screening programme to detect learning disabilities in children. Teachers are not trained to read Apgar scores, which can initially signal whether a child may need further evaluation or not.
There is also not a comprehensive medical history taken from a parent when a child enters school. Early childhood teachers are not trained in the signs and symptoms of learning disabilities or physical disabilities. The result is that in the case of mild physical disabilities or learning disabilities, children are sometimes not diagnosed adequately.
The Ministry of Education has no clear strategy for managing children with learning disabilities. I am not sure what is the role of the criterion reference testing, but it certainly does not act as the first step in identifying children for remediation.
Every school in Barbados still does not have a remedial reading teacher, and in the cases where there are remedial teachers their programmes are interrupted if another teacher is ill and a substitute one is needed.
By now some may be arguing that it is the responsibility of the parent to ensure that their children get the intervention. There are two responses to that observation.
Firstly, research has shown that children who come from socially and economically deprived households tend to be more likely to have learning disabilities. These parents are not able to assist their children in the way they need to be. That is the blatant truth; and, as a society, we must be able to reach back and assist these children, or their cycles of depravity will be perpetuated.
The parents who can assist their children run into the roadblock of not having adequate structures. When I say that the Ministry of Education has no structures for children with learning disabilities, either for children to be remediated or facilitated in the Common Entrance Examination, I mean that.
In order for a child to be diagnosed with any learning disability in Barbados, the parent has to bear the cost of testing. There are no tax rebates, and the process is not cheap. As an example, it costs $400 to have a child diagnosed as dyslexic. The child is to be tested at least every two years.
It does not make sense to have the diagnosis done without the necessary lessons to assist the child. The going rate for lessons is $55 for 45 minutes.
A child could be diagnosed as early as possible, but at the time of Common Entrance, the ministry still demands that another test is done. The child could be getting consistently low marks and poor grades in the criterion testing. The child could even be enrolled in remedial reading at school. None of that matters to the Ministry of Education.
Apart from the process being unnecessarily repetitive, it places a premium on punishing children for their exceptionalities, instead of catering to an individual child until their potential can be bolstered. All the investment that the parent makes gets the child a grand extra 15 minutes on both papers.
What does 15 minutes of extra time do?
Such has been my journey of frustration as the mother of a dyslexic child over the last few years. I’ve cried many a tear. I have watched her struggle to learn to read.
I see her face every time she gets her report with her 23 per cent in English and her near last position in class (based on written tests; her marks are in the 70s in oral tests). The system tries to remind her in every way that she is different, but my daughter is her mother’s child. She has embraced her difference and is rising above it daily.
I must say a gigantic thank you to the principal and staff of the Lawrence T. Gay Memorial Primary School for loving my child, not for what she could not do but for the things she could. This child who gets poor marks has been a NIFCA Award-winning photographer before she was ten. She has also cleaned up a few other national photography competitions.
My experience of parenting a special child has made me downright despise the Common Entrance even more. My simple question is: why is the Common Entrance Examination only geared to reinforce to my daughter that she is dyslexic and needs help in mathematics and English, instead of allowing her to compete for an arts placement in a school based on what is obviously her gift?
Does the Ministry of Education know that photography can now be done across the world to Bachelor’s level?
(Marsha Hinds-Layne is a full-time mummy and part-time lecturer in communications at the University of the West Indies. Email firstname.lastname@example.org)