The practice of public relations, which is about positive image building, the management of perception and the cultivation of mutually beneficial relationships, is anchored in a fundamental understanding of perception. Namely, that how a person or organization is generally perceived translates into the reality they face and have to contend with.
Seen from this perspective, it does not matter, therefore, whether a person considers him or herself to be a saint because if he or she is generally perceived to be a rascal, then that is the reality he or she faces and has to address in dealing with others. Perception is not only reality; indeed, it is everything because how people respond to others is mostly influenced by their perception.
Addressing the graduation ceremony for students of the St Bartholomew Primary School who will be moving on to various secondary schools from September, Minister of Education Ronald Jones sought last week to dispel the widespread and firmly entrenched perception among Barbadians that certain schools on the island are good while others are not so good. In fact, some would say they are bad.
“There is no good school, bad school,” Mr Jones contended. “It is a dangerous syndrome, which has crept into the lexicon of Barbadians. All of our schools are good schools because in all of our schools are people and, by and large, all of our people are good people. We want to move from good people to better people and to the best people that we can find anywhere on God’s Earth. That is what we really need to do.”
A noble and laudable aspiration indeed! But Mr Jones certainly ought to be aware that what determines whether a school is perceived to be “good” or “bad”, especially parents who have to make choices for their children at Common Entrance time, is not the presence of good persons. It goes much deeper and has more to do with desirability, which is influenced by reputation, the quality of teaching and the overall academic performance of students.
Mr Jones has to move beyond such a simple explanation and do a whole lot more if he really wishes to convince Barbadians that all schools on the island are the same and that it basically makes no difference which school a child attends. For such an argument falls flat in the face of common perception which is reality for most Barbadians. This perception also has a historical dimension and it is linked again to the Barbados Secondary Schools Entrance Exam, which is more commonly referred to as the 11-plus exam or the Common Entrance.
Remember the days when students who took the 11-plus were considered successful only if they gained sufficient marks to qualify for a place at the so-called older grammar schools? The message which the system subtly sent was that these were the good schools because they catered to the successful students while the others were not good because they were for the unsuccessful students who did not make the grade.
Which explains why to this day, even though students are now allocated to all schools based on performance in the 11-plus, there is a rush to the Ministry of Education by parents after the results are released, to secure transfers. The underlying reason is that parents want their children to get into a better school because they consider the one assigned is not good enough. Let’s face it: our education system is elitist, a feature we inherited from the British through the colonial experience.
The Ministry of Education reinforces this system every year by parading before the nation the top performers in the Common Entrance who invariably go to certain schools. These children are held up by the Ministry of Education as examples of success which is then reinforced in media coverage. Again, what are the subtle messages being sent? They may be subtle, yes, but they are oh so obvious.
So the cycle keeps repeating itself. What is needed is reform and modernization of our education system to cleanse it of elitism and re-educate our people, not so much by words but more importantly by action, that educational success is not uniform but varies in accordance with individual ability. So that if John Brown goes to a certain school and becomes a top class carpenter, his success is seen and celebrated in the same way as Peter Jones who went to an elite school and becomes a doctor or lawyer.
By so doing, we can make a gradual start to changing long-held perceptions about our schools. Until this happens, Mr Jones can talk until the cows come home; his argument that all schools are the same will make little difference because most Barbadians will continue to see it the other way.