In the recent Estimates debate, much attention was justifiably paid to education and, for the most part, Minister Ronald Jones was given a passing grade for his efforts to ensure that Barbadians were provided with an acceptable level of education and training. I support many of the sentiments expressed in the debate, but would like to offer a few comments which some may regard as criticisms.
First, I would like to advise the Honorable Minister to work harder to improve the relationship between his ministry and the two teachers’ unions. Consultation and co-operation need to replace confrontation and conflict.
As a former outstanding trade unionist, Minister Jones must be aware of the importance of regular meetings between these two key stakeholders in education, and of the need to promote and maintain good industrial relations.
In addition, too often in the recent past, Mr Jones has publicly chastised principals and teachers. This is unhelpful, to put it mildly, and has impacted negatively on the teaching fraternity. Teachers reasonably expect that a former educator would recognize that teacher bashing will help neither teachers nor the student population. If the Minister wishes to identify shortcomings, he should raise them in closed door sessions. He would do well to emulate the examples of Ministers John Boyce and Steve Blackett who stoutly defend their staffs in public even if they criticize them in private.
The third, but most important point I wish to make is that neither Mr Jones nor his predecessors have been bold enough to reform the system of transfer from primary to secondary level. The Common Entrance Examination is a “sacred cow” in Barbados mainly because it gives parents the opportunity to boast that their children have passed for the elite schools such as Harrison College, Queen’s College, The St Michael School and Combermere. It should be noted that the once prestigious institution in St John is now not so much sought after since political interference in the seventies dragged it through the mud.
What I want to emphasize, though, is that whereas the 11+ examination could be justified in the first thirty years after Independence as a way of ensuring that the most academically gifted pupils could be exposed to the most highly qualified teachers, circumstances have now changed. ALL schools in Barbados now have quality teachers and teaching resources, so that no matter where a child goes, he/she has a chance to excel, once he/she has the ability. The major difference between an older and newer secondary school is STUDENT INTAKE. When we place 11 year old pupils scoring 80% and above at four or five of the so called top schools and assign those recording 30% and below to St. George Secondary, Princess Margaret, Grantley Adams Memorial and Daryl Jordan, we must know that results at CSEC are likely to be far better at the schools with the “bright sparks” than the ones with the low achievers.
So when we praise Harrison College for achieving excellence at CSEC, but castigate Princess Margaret for mediocre results, we are being disingenuous. It is time we face up to the truth behind our almost fanatical defence of the educational status quo. Would it be true to say that the 11+ exam provides for one upmanship among teachers of primary schools which are graded according to success in that test? Do we really want to preserve status and bragging rights to the extent that where one goes to school is more important than what one learns? It is amusing but sad that big men and women as old as 70 and 80 are still asked which secondary school they attended, with the resultant puffing of chests or looks of inferiority.
Mr Minister, media concentration on top achievers on the days following the announcement of Common Entrance results must not obfuscate the fact that every year a large number of our children are made to feel like failures because they are consigned to what a friend calls, rather uncharitably, “pedagogical dumping grounds”. I think he is pointing to the fact that the present system results in some teachers having to spend nearly all of their working lives struggling to teach students whose poor reading and writing skills militate against effective learning, and who are turned off from school anyway. On the other hand, other teachers similarly trained are privileged to be at schools where pupils have acquired the foundation skills necessary for success.
Having critiqued the system, I would like to offer some suggestions on the way forward. First of all, the exam used for allocation needs to be scrapped. Tests designed to identify weaknesses with the aim of remediation should be given at ages seven, nine and eleven. Transfers to schools within easy reach of students should be made when the students are ready. Four or five of our present secondary schools strategically placed in the North, South, East and Central areas of the island should be made sixth form colleges and these, along with the Barbados Community College, should cater to the needs of our post-secondary graduates.
Specialization could be in the Sciences, Humanities, Arts, Technology and Sports. All other secondary schools should be zoned and required to take students with varying levels of abilities. The argument that any allocation which takes into consideration the full range of abilities will lead to “dumbing down” is nonsensical. At both the primary and tertiary levels, “high flyers” rub shoulders with the less academically gifted, and I know of no adverse effects on the student population. All children need to feel that they are attending a school which can perform creditably in all areas of the curriculum.
The final proposal I wish to make is that Government provide a few trade schools which those whose aptitude leads them to vocational areas can be transferred after three years of secondary education. There, they would continue to learn English, Arithmetic and Civics as well as the trade they have selected. Transfers would be done after consultation with parents, teachers and students. I believe such centres will go a long way in putting an end to the untenable situation of children who are not interested in traditional academic subjects being forced to go to fifth form and, in the process, making nuisances of themselves.
(John Goddard is a retired secondary school teacher who taught at St George Secondary and Harrison College)