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Not just about the 11-plus

by Marlon Madden
7 min read
Akil Ifill

With a passion for teaching and a desire to bring about a positive change to the education system in Barbados, Akil Ifill decided at the age of 31 that it was time to start a school.

The ambitious Shop Hill, St Thomas resident would receive a lot of pushbacks and criticisms, but that did not stop him from opening The Ifill School – a primary and secondary learning institution – last September with the help of his brother and father.

“We recognized there was a gap missing for children who needed more than just academics,” Ifill told Barbados TODAY.

Ifill started dabbling in teaching at the age of 20, with his father, by providing lessons for students preparing for the 11-plus examinations. And about seven years ago he would move to Harmony Hall, St Michael, just a stone’s throw away from where the school is located.

Ifill said when he decided to start the institution he was aware that people were comfortable with “doing everything the same way they have been doing it for the last 20 years”. However, with a background in graphic design, qualifications in business studies, and years of experience in various sporting disciplines, the former Combermere student said he believed he could start a learning institution to encourage students to follow their dreams.

“So, when you see The Ifill School, it will look different to other schools because of the background that I came from. There are certain things we will do from a business standpoint that make sense that other schools may not attempt to do,” he said.

He explained that while the school had a focus on academics, equal emphasis was being placed on sport and the creative arts. He said the students were also encouraged to take part in national activities, as evident by the Junior Calypso Monarch competition, which saw the entry of four of his students.

Speaking with Barbados TODAY recently on a bench inside the school yard, the educator said he would soon be launching a programme that would encourage students to start their own business while working with people in neighbouring communities. He said the school’s model was designed to ensure that children enjoy going to school and enjoy learning.

“If a child enjoys coming to school, they will learn better. I think we focus so much on getting a child to score a particular mark that we forget that children are children. They need to enjoy the process of learning,” he said.

The Ifill School currently has about 65 students and nine teachers. The school opened last year with a full complement of primary school level classes – one to four – and a first form for its secondary school section.

All the students attending the school were transferred from other institutions, something that has been taking place every term. Ifill said the current setup of classes with an average of 15 students to one teacher – about half of what exists in the public school system – was helping students to learn better. The school also brings in specialists to help students who are having difficulties learning.

“The small classes help you do a lot of things – group projects, group assignments [and] evaluation. I want to say it is not about getting the child to score 100 per cent, it is about getting them to understand what is before them. Some bloom late. Every child is not the same,” he said.

One of the unique things Ifill is doing in his learning institution is to introduce the secondary level students to the Caribbean Examination Council (CXC). This year, one student had the opportunity to sit the CXC English Language exam.

“This is to expose the students. Why are we saying to our students that they cannot do this or that?” he said.

“Our first form is different. Our secondary is different. They do CXCs every year. It is not like we say first, second, third and fourth form,” he said.

Students are also signed on to a sports programme and there is a cadet programme that is mandatory for secondary school students.

Ifill boasted that his institution was one of the few that the Ministry of Education would readily recommend to parents who were seeking a private institution to send their children to, and he believed it was because of the approach. “We need to find ways of channelling students in different directions like [towards] sports and business,” he said.

Explaining the reason for him starting the institution, Ifill said: “What happened is that we were having very successful results with our 11 plus lessons programme and our camp and I said ‘let us work on opening a school’ – that would be myself, my father and my brother who is an animator.”

Despite the early pushbacks he received, Ifill said after he opened the institution he received a lot of positive outpouring and encouragement.

The father of two sons and a daughter said he was now happy he was able to contribute to the development of the young people in Barbados although sometimes, he would question his decision.

“We put everything we had into the school. This is all I do. There is nothing else. I gave up a decent career in advertising and graphic design to open a school, and sometimes, yes, when the difficult days come, you wish you hadn’t done it,” he reminisced.

Ifill said while he was satisfied with the location, the learning institution was in need of some help to further develop. He said there was a need for the playing field which is located on the eastern side of the compound, to be spruced up. “Some have criticised the front of the school. Yes, we recognise it needs work but we can’t just take what little we have and do the front and neglect more important things that need to be done. We have to prioritise,” he said.

Seventeen students from the Ifill School sat the 11 plus examination this year. The educator said he supported government’s decision to revisit that examination.

“A lot of the things the Government is proposing to implement in terms of the schools, we have already been there. We have been doing the research,” said Ifill.

“I think when the 11-plus was formed it was to get away from the post colonial and racist divide that segregated poor black people children from having a quality education. But we are at a stage where we must focus on the children who do not score more than 20 per cent,” he said.

He added that many of the island’s children, both in the private and public education system, had a difficulty with comprehension and reading and it should be addressed. This was one of the reasons Ifill said he decided that his school would have four terms.

“We believe four terms would also curb the need for having all of these other alternative programmes in the summer,” he said.

“We have had academic camps for years and many people in the society would have frowned on them and say ‘why you don’t let the children relax’, but many of our children have deficits… I think we need to find more effective ways of handling students who are void of discipline,” he said, pointing to the mandatory cadets programme at his institution.

Ifill said he would be seeking to form an association with other private schools so they could work closer with the public school education system to provide “a more comprehensive education platform”.

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