Senior Education Specialist Dr Mariana Alfonso of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) recently made comments about education in Barbados which are not surprising. The points highlighted were already known to Barbadians but they perhaps were supported by data in a way that was not hitherto possible.
A few months ago, I wrote an article which examined results from the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) and the Common Entrance Examination as a gauge to how effectively our educational system was working. Information was not easily available from the Ministry of Education especially statistics for pass and fail grades.
One benefit of the IDB critique is that we now have some conclusions which were based on studies completed between 1999 and 2012. According to Dr Alfonso, Barbadian school leavers generally were not able to meet the requirement for four CSEC passes for entry into the Civil Service.
Another notable statistic was that students who do secure passes in CSEC examinations, were doing so only after multiple sittings. Additionally, only 6.1 per cent of students in Barbados receive four passes when they first sit.
These statistics which have come out simply confirm trends that we have seen in the society. They connect the failures in the educational system to tangible numbers which then connect to some physical features of modern Barbadian society.
If young people are graduating without certification and cannot be considered for employment within the formal sector, the informal sectors then become an option. Various sites in communities across Barbados are used as points where these young school leavers congregate for various purposes, including recreation and the sale and trade of items.
The educational system is not doing enough to foster comprehension and reading skills in the school population. Many children enter school using dialect as their first language and we have not yet come to grips with that fact. Yet children are taught as if English is their first language.
Studies on dialect speakers in the Caribbean have shown that in the case of children who speak a dialect which is related to the standard language of their territory, there is sometimes confusion between the two. Unless children are taught as if they are learning two separate language systems, there are impacts on language skills.
Although this research is old and established, Barbados has stuck slavishly to its language teaching methodologies. The loss of comprehension and weak reading skills could perhaps be a part of the reason why young Barbadians require multiple attempts to secure a passing grade.
This point should also make us consider the types of post-secondary access we provide to certification. It would also help if we change the perceptions about returning to ‘school’ or needing additional years to complete a particular syllabus.
The Minister of Education, in his response to the observations made by the IDB official, noted that Barbados did have some schools which were producing students with high passes and high grades along with other schools which were not doing the same thing. This corresponds again to what we already know about our educational system.
It cannot be enough not to realize that the portion of our school population which is failing seems significantly bigger than the portion excelling. It also cannot be overlooked that the students who are producing the lower grades and passes in these schools were placed in them five years before with low common entrance grades.
The point is that although the students are placed in these schools at age 11 with grades which clearly show they need specialized syllabi, they are not offered the help needed. The minister pointed to accelerated programmes for students at the higher end of the spectrum to fast track their progress. However, there are no corresponding recovery programmes to assist students on the other end of the spectrum.
This is the real takeaway about education in Barbados and we all knew it before the weigh in of the IDB official. If children can manage the syllabus in schools, and get to one of the ‘high schools’, chances are they will do well. However, if students require further intervention, our system is less adept at catering for them.
The gaps in the educational system coincide with other societal challenges which affect students who are the most vulnerable. These include poverty, low parental involvement and poor housing options. The cocktail leads to underproductive young people who operate on the fringe of society.
In examining solutions to our educational system, we will have to be able to balance our needs moving forward to the attachment to the ‘old school tie’. Although we know what is wrong with our system, both empirical and researched, there is a lack of will to address the issues because nobody really wants the fallout from the required adjustments. We prefer instead to sacrifice child after child and then defend our educational system in spite of what we all know. The only people who repeat an action over and again the same way but expect different results are people who have lost touch with their reality.
Barbados’ educational system has long since stopped being effective. The sooner we acknowledge that and seek to fix it, the more productive citizens we can produce.
(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)