Barbados’ education system has come for severe criticism from a senior official of the Inter American Development Bank (IDB), who has warned that even though the island is considered a leader in Latin America and the Caribbean, its overall level of learning is still way below par.
Dr Mariana Alfonso, a Senior Education Specialist at the IDB, bases her assessment on studies done between 1999 and 2012, which she said uncovered a number of worrying results.
For one, the research shows that many school leavers cannot even meet the basic requirement of four Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) passes for entry into the public service.
“Of the students who actually take that exam, 50 per cent obtain far more CSEC passes, but only after multiple sittings,” Alphonso pointed out.
In fact, she said “only 6.1 per cent of the students in Barbados get the four passes in the first sitting of the exam”.
“This is an issue because it limits the possibilities these kids have when they enter the labour force, not having so many passes,” the IDB official said in an address to this week’s Fifth International Conference on Higher Education.
The research also showed that nearly a quarter or “23 per cent of all students in Barbados don’t get the certificate because they don’t complete [or] do that final examination”.
“They’ve been through the system, but they don’t have that certificate that will allow them to go into the workforce,” Alphonso stressed.
She also raised concern that the Caribbean and Latin America was the region with the largest learning gaps, while pointing out that children from wealthy families were learning a lot more than those from lower socio-economic families.
This, she said, was also reflected in the performances of students in the Secondary School Entrance Examination (SSEE), otherwise referred to as the Common Entrance exam.
She also drew a link between the Common Entrance and Caribbean Examination Council results, pointing out that 12 of Barbados’ secondary schools which were continuously showing weak CXC performances received the lower scoring students in the SSEE.
“So you have a segregated system by assigning the students who have higher test scores to the better performing schools.
“It is an assignment mechanism that maintains inequality, and maintains that performance gap that is observed at the entrance in the [secondary] system,” Alfonso argued.
She said while the Ministry of Education was currently seeking grants and other assistance for the 12 underperforming schools, “there is a lot of work to be done here”.
The IDB official went on to show that the problem was not only one of poor education, but also a lack of preparation for entry into the workforce.
“We’re seeing that students are not necessarily well prepared to support an economy that is based on knowledge and innovation, because most of the [CXC] passes are not done on, for example in science and technology. There is still a large share of students who are doing, for example, electronic document preparation, office administration,” she said.
Alfonso, who has a PhD in Education, also said, based on a 2012 survey, Barbadian employers shared the same complaint as their Latin American counterparts that school leavers lacked necessary soft skills – “the ability to work with other people, the ability to lead, to think critically, to respect authority, to be punctual to work, to be on time for a meeting”.
She also highlighted the issue of gender in education, saying exam subject choices were still largely influenced by traditional gender concepts with women tending to focus more in areas of office administration, electric document processing.
“It is like there is still a lot of choices going on in schools that perpetrate gender roles,” Alfonso said, adding that “more could be done to have more women work on science and technology”.
The IDB official also touched on the issue of spending on education, while noting that this rose from 4.2 per cent of GDP to 5.8 per cent in 2012, which she said was above the average for some rich, developed countries which make up the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Such spending, she said, was also above the average for Latin America and the Caribbean.
However, despite this financial effort, the IDB researcher said per person spending was still low when compared to other zones with high education performers.
“Not only student performance is low, but also students are not learning what is needed for them to be productive members of society in the 21st century,” she said, while stressing that though Barbados leads the region in terms of the performance in CSEC, learning was still low.
“Even though in some cases it has improved recently, 61 per cent of students in Barbados achieve pass grades in Mathematics, and in the case of Trinidad, that is 51 per cent, so we definitely have a problem with education quality.”