The authors of the White Paper on Education Reform (1995) had envisioned the introduction of new initiatives to improve the delivery of quality education in Barbados. One of the major innovations was the establishment of three secondary schools offering an alternative programme which would “be provided with an appropriate curricula, appropriate text books, specialized equipment, training programmes in actual work environments, realistic grants, and suitably trained, considerate and skillful staff.”
This educational innovation was a bold step considering the development of education in Barbados. Traditionally, and even within recent history, the education provision in Barbados is influenced by excellence in the academics. For example, the Barbados Secondary Schools’ Entrance Examination (BSSEE) continues to be the preferred examination for transfer from primary to secondary schooling. This examination’s main goal is to select students to our secondary schools based on at least four years of intense preparation of two subjects, Language Arts and Mathematics. At the end of this preparation, persons are assigned to schools based on the familiar pecking order of those with the highest marks going to Harrison College and Queen’s College until one reaches such schools as Grantley Adams Secondary with the lowest marks.
For many years prior to 1995, children acquiring the lowest marks between zero and 30 in the BSSEE were assigned to a particular group of newer secondary schools which are considered to be at the lower end within the newer secondary group. In fact, principals of those secondary schools were often reluctant to take such children and often had to be forced to do so by the Ministry of Education.
These low achievers were persons that had gone through a full programme of schooling from nursery to class four (11-plus) and exposed to the best set of qualified teachers anywhere in the British Commonwealth. At the primary level, there are persons with Masters and PhD Degrees, in addition to their professional qualifications. The high quality of our teacher stock reflects generally the success of our higher educational institutions. However, at the end of the primary school experience, there are those children who are unable to compete creditably at the BSSEE level.
The general view of Barbadian society is that all children should be academics. They fail to appreciate the fact that all persons are different and endowed with different attributes. The annual educational carnival where the parents of students identify some schools as failures where their children would not be going; where politicians join the circus of offering children gifts as rewards for BSSEE performances; and where the media highlight the ten high flyers, often reinforce the concept of an examination whose focus is to honour those who are best able to manipulate skills applicable to numeracy and literacy.
Some thought, however, must be given to our low-achievers. For students to pass through the primary system without the minimum ability to gain from that curriculum should deserve our special attention. For instance, to experience difficulty in reading or recognizing one or two syllable words or even to write one’s name clearly indicates someone with certain mental challenges. Such persons are often slow in comprehending the regular curriculum. And in all societies there are, and will be, such persons.
The idea in 1995 was to provide a school for such children where their special needs would be met in an environment that would not be influenced by purely cognitive achievement. The reality is that the newer secondary schools were and are overcrowded, thus they are faced with administrative challenges; disciplinary problems; and a continuing curriculum uncertainty as a consequence of attempting to satisfy the varying abilities of students. In my opinion, this environment could not and cannot be the ideal for very low achievers.
It is within this context that Dr Leonard Shorey at the time remarked: “Government in general and the Minister of Education and her Ministry are therefore to be commended for their recognition and acceptance of the need to make specific provision for a significant portion of youngsters who are otherwise likely to get lost in the shuffle.”
It is fairly widespread knowledge that most secondary school teachers do not see the very slow learners as belonging to their institutions.
Unfortunately, the birth of the Alma Parris Secondary was welcomed by some sections of the education community with ridicule, to the extent that the students of the new school were often harassed to and from school. The concept of the new school was even attacked by the Barbados Union Teachers. Hear the President of the BUT, Ronald Jones: “We have already heard an acronym being attached to the school, because some people were calling it the Alternative Secondary School, and you can come up with the acronym.”
A prominent educator at the time, Mathew Farley, in defence of the new school, had this to say: “Unfortunately, the school has already been given a bad public among some professionals who seem to have some crystal ball by which they can forecast the future failure or success of a school.” He went on: “One of the things about experimenting with alternative strategies of delivering education is that, since every system has its attendant flaws, reform tantamounts to choosing the system with the least error.”
Writing in support of the school in 1995, I stated: “If the school is to succeed, the Minister must herself take a personal interest in the school in terms of professional support for teachers and adequate material resource allocation. She must also ensure that the school’s skilled-based curriculum is never compromised if the school is to truly offer an opportunity for those who were unable to pass the BSSEE. Their education must provide them with the skills for the job market or self-employment.”
The question must therefore be asked: Did the Ministry of Education pay sufficient attention to the development of the institution, bearing in mind Barbadians’ blind obsession to academic institutions? A recent example is the policy now to place a sixth form at every secondary school in Barbados. Will these children being forced to leave the Alma Parris be adequately cared for within these new sixth form institutions? Also, at this time with the turmoil being exhibited at these schools, will the special needs of these children be adequately addressed?
I am personally disappointed at the closure of the Alma Parris Secondary. The Minister’s reasons for the closure appear very unconvincing, especially when he stated that: “Anytime you have slow learners and children with special needs they should be given the best that any system has to offer, because they are already starting from a low threshold.”
This statement clearly suggests a lack of institutional support, a situation that I feared and expressed at the establishment of the school. My conclusion is that Barbadian society continues to opt for mainstreaming, with the BSSEE as its symbol of excellence, paying only ‘lip service’ to the needs of the very slow learners.
(Dr. Dan C. Carter is an educational historian and author.)