The nation is once again discussing education. The flare up was caused this time by the challenge of Rastafarian parents who prefer to home school their children than to have them integrated into mainstream education. I use the term ‘flare up’ deliberately because we have not had a coherent discussion about education in Barbados in about 16 years. I sidestep the debate on whether the parents followed the correct procedure or not.
Let us immediately cancel out the procedural rightness or wrongness by accepting that we, as a nation, kept a young woman out of school for eight weeks while we figured out how to solve an impasse over a wrapper. The take away is that sometimes when we do not know what to do, reality overrides procedure and we end up with situations which we should not have.
We will try not to hold that against these parents, just like we did not hold it against the State in the other matter. Let us examine instead some of the more pertinent facts and fictions about education in Barbados. This will bring us to a point where, at least, when we are ready to commence a full discussion about education, we know what the goal posts and pertinent issues are.
Fact: Using the Common Entrance Examination criteria as the sole judgment for pass or fail, we have more children in this Island who fail the examination than pass it on a year to year basis.
I called the Ministry of Education as a part of the research for this article because I wanted to simply ask how many children get above 50 per cent in Mathematics and English on a yearly basis. I was informed that the information is not available to the public, either online or over the phone. The only way the information could be garnered was through writing a request for it.
I do not need to underline that the secrecy around the data is ludicrous. I stand by the assertion that most of the students who write the Common Entrance Examination are gaining less than 50 per cent on this basis. I called some secondary schools and gleaned that the average 1st form intake is about 150.
We have at least seven schools in Barbados which are considered ‘lower secondary schools’ to about four which are seen as the island’s premier institutions. That simple deduction would suggest that we place more students at the lower end of our educational system than the higher end. Why would any parent want to willingly place their child in such a system?
Fact: The Minister of Education is on record as saying that he believes a demon is ‘loose’ in the school children of Barbados. The Minister was at the time referring to various deviant behaviours being exhibited by children. The heads of both teachers’ unions are also on record regarding their concerns about the behaviour of school children.
These two Rastafarian parents are the recent two of a barrage of people concerned about issues of sexuality, bullying and other deviant behaviours in schools. Is their point not invalid because they are Rasta?
Fact: The Ministry of Education is now administering a 16 year old curriculum with many students leaving school at the secondary level without passes in English or Mathematics. Again, the unavailability of data stops us from getting a clear picture of exactly how acute this problem is.
Based on data coming out of our prison population on reading and educational levels, however, I am comfortable enough with the anecdotal trend to stand by the assertion. What incentive are we really giving these parents for enrolling their children?
Fiction: The Ministry has the capability to create and administer Individual Education Plans (IEPs). As good and as plausible as this sounds, I question the veracity of the statement.
As the mother of a dyslexic child who never scored more than 30 on a criterion test and, indeed on end of term tests for an entire primary school career, I am dumbfounded as to how being in a home schooling environment could merit an IEP more than my daughter’s scenario.
The parents could easier relate to Jack finding a golden hen at the top of a beanstalk than this claim, based on the current experience of several parents. Am I wrong, parents?
We have done no studies in Barbados which compare the products of home schooling to those of formal schooling. Can we say that the parents’ belief that their children’s individual attention in a home setting can do them any more damage than the environments in some of our schools? Or do we expect the parents simply to be happy with ‘the law say so, do it’?
I have not even gotten into the biggest fictions of all about the Rastafarian movement and the condescending way the lifestyle is generally viewed in Barbados. As a person identifying with the Rastafarian lifestyle, I know that these thoughts about the lifestyle are very off base.
Rastafarians are careful about what they feed their minds and bodies. Children in the Rastafarian way are the ultimate gift of the Universe and many Rastafarians have been known to turn their lives around using their children as ‘groundation’.
I do not know these parents personally but until there is evidence to prove that the children are being endangered, I would be surprised if that is the case with their parents so seemingly entrenched in the Rastafarian doctrine.
Leonard Howell, Robert Hinds and the progenitors of Rastafari embraced a number of principles at the beginning of the movement. Although the ones around black consciousness and black justice have become more known over time, Rastafari courtship and family values remain mystified.
Taking all these facts and fictions into consideration, I must ask the question: Exactly what are the two Rastafarian children who do not attend formal school missing? If they are not in the ‘high flying’ group who will make it to one of the ‘top schools’, does our system really have anything to offer them?
Upon which basis do we rank formal education better than home schooling? Do the figures, which we spend so much time as a country hiding, justify the premium of one mode of education over the other?
I hope my Rastafarian brethren and his Queen have the courage and resolve not to be bullied into making a decision for their children based on hype and optics. The parents of these children have real concerns and I believe that before we take hard lines, we should ensure our system is up more than a farcical standard.
(Marsha Hinds-Layneis a full-time mummy and part-time lecturer in communications at the University of the West Indies.