The latest incidence of school violence that involved a 16-year-old being stabbed to death by another student while at school, has shocked many Barbadians. It has led to the usual round of discussions about what is to blame and which of many ideas will solve the problem. However, it is clear that since school violence has been an ongoing concern in Barbados in recent years, the solution is likely to involve more than a single approach and therefore necessitates a review of influences on children’s development and behaviour at all levels. This includes influences from the family within which young people grow up through to the society in which we live, and in particular, the education system they are exposed to.
Barbadian society is one in which there is currently great concern about the levels of gun and knife violence that seem to have substantially increased in recent years. This is at a time when greater than ever numbers of children are growing up in circumstances of economic hardship. Barbados’ economic problems in recent years have led to more people losing their jobs and working for low wages that are not enough to sustain their families. Insufficient money to meet living costs and limited supervision by parents or other family members is the reality of life for many children.
As a result, many families are struggling to provide the basic necessities for their children and to be able to spend enough quality time with them. So the government needs to address this reality by reviewing the financial and social support for families that are struggling to cope. This was acknowledged by the Prime Minister earlier in the year and plans put in place to address this situation for the most vulnerable families.
The Prime Minister has also made a commitment to reform the education system since the divisive, selective, secondary school system is clearly a contributory factor to violence in schools. It is now recognized that addressing the problem of school violence requires comprehensive reform of the education system. Therefore, we need to consider major changes, including the one proposed below.
As is often said, ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ Therefore, an essential aspect of education reform that will reduce school violence is making every school an important part of the community in which the school belongs. That is, making every school a community school. This means that all children will attend their local primary school and then go on to the secondary school within their own neighbourhood. With all children attending their local schools, communities will be more able, along with parents, families and teachers, to share in the task of supporting the education of children living in their communities. It will involve having respected members of the community, such as church leaders, as well as parents of children attending the school, on each school’s governing body, along with the principal and teacher representatives.
Since parental engagement is essential to the effective education and social development of young people, all schools need to work hard to involve as many parents and families of their students as possible in the education of their children. Parents need to see themselves, and be seen by teachers, as partners with schools in the education of their children. One way to start this process is to invite parents of each new intake of students to come with their child to a meeting at the school, with the principal and teachers, at which it is made clear what parents can do to support the school in educating their children. Home visits by the principal/guidance counselor/social worker should be made to any parents who do not attend. Continued high levels of parental involvement can be maintained by using parent-teacher-student conferences to review progress every term and establishing regular communication between teachers and parents.
Unfortunately, achieving high levels of parent and community involvement is made more difficult within the current education system because of the influence of the divisive Common Entrance Exam (CEE), the results of which require many secondary students to travel to attend schools that are not in their local communities. It also encourages many parents to take their children to primary schools outside of their communities to primary schools with reputations for getting good results in the CEE.
So, the first thing to do is to get rid of the CEE and replace it with a system of geographical zoning, as was described in our article in Barbados TODAY on 14th May 2019, and is summarized here. With zoning, students will attend the primary school and move on to the secondary school nearest to where they live, thereby doing away with the need for selection using the CEE, as well as the hours spent travelling to school each day.
One way to make this feasible would be to introduce a small number of sixth-form colleges. For example, Harrison College and Queen’s College would only enrolll students in their sixth-form years undertaking advanced level courses. All other secondary schools would enroll students in forms one through five. Students would then get into the sixth-form colleges based on their passes and grades in the CXE examinations taken at the end of the fifth form year.
All the remaining government secondary schools will need to have their own geographical zones from which they draw their students. These can be drawn up to ensure that schools enroll similar numbers of students and that each secondary school represents as diverse a socioeconomic population as possible. Compensatory mechanisms can be used to allocate additional resources to schools that have disproportionate levels of pupils from poorer backgrounds, as is done in other countries.
Without the CEE, the focus of primary and secondary schools becomes making every school an excellent one that brings out the best of every single student that attends. In addition to teaching academic skills, including reading, writing and mathematics, primary school teachers will then be able to focus more on personal and interpersonal skill development through teaching social and emotional learning programs. In this way, they will be able to focus on the development of the so-called soft skills, including teamwork, communication, conflict resolution and problem-solving skills, that are necessary for having positive relationships with others and for being successful at work.
Also, teachers will be able to use strategies such as Circle Time and peer support programs to create positive learning environments that prevent disruptive and violent behaviour. Schools can also put into place programs to prevent bullying and the development of mental health problems that promote non-violent conflict resolution. All of these measures will help prevent violent behaviour.
Another important aspect of education reform is that, in addition to teaching academic subjects, secondary schools need to place greater emphasis on technical and vocational education by making these attractive alternative options during the later stages of secondary schooling, as noted in our article in Barbados TODAY on 20th June 2019.
This proposes that while all students will study mainly academic subjects with some technical/vocational courses in the first few years of secondary schooling, they be allowed to opt to follow a curriculum focused on more vocational education, studying for Caribbean Vocational Qualifications, during their fourth and fifth form years. This more vocationally focused option would be available alongside the more academically focused curriculum taken by students aiming to sit Caribbean Examination Council examinations.
So, whereas students following an academic program and sitting CXCs would be aiming to go on to sixth form colleges and then university, those following the vocational route to prepare for taking CVQs would be aiming to go on to institutions such as community college, polytechnic or hospitality school, or aiming to leave school at age 16 years to get jobs.
A further important component of the needed education reform, that will help to reduce school violence, is the implementation of a national policy and effective practices for the education of children with special needs and disabilities, as outlined in our article on this topic in Barbados TODAY on 5th June 2019. By having effective special needs policy and procedures in place, teachers will be able to address children’s learning difficulties, gifts and talents, and ensure that all children develop to their maximum potential.
Specifically, the education system needs to implement effective policies and procedures for educating children with various levels of learning or behaviour challenges. The national policy on special and inclusive education needs to be backed up by specific education legislation for children with special needs and disabilities and implemented through guidelines for schools on how to teach such children. All schools need to have learning support coordinators and there should be initial and in-service training for all teachers on children with special needs and disabilities.
In addition to guidance counsellors in all secondary schools, there should be social workers in primary schools. There also needs to be educational psychologists for assessing children’s needs and helping schools with program planning, as well as parent-partnership services to provide guidance and support for families who have children with special needs and disabilities.
Finally, as recognized by the recent Ministry of Education policy on phasing out corporal punishment in schools, we cannot expect to reduce violence if ‘flogging’ is used within schools as a means of disciplining students. Using violent means to discipline students sends the wrong message and provides a bad example to our young people. We need to promote non-violent approaches to discipline and conflict resolution, as well as have anti-bullying programs to promote positive relationships within schools.
Therefore, schools need to implement whole-school behaviour policies that include replacing ‘flogging’ with a range of other strategies, especially involving parents. With increased involvement of parents, families and communities in schools, discipline will be maintained by the use of approaches such as parent-teacher-student conferences and home-school behaviour programs. In these ways, schools will provide positive examples of non-violent ways of solving conflicts that will contribute to the reduction of violent behaviour both at school and in society.
Garry Hornby has worked as a secondary school teacher, educational psychologist and university lecturer in England, New Zealand and Barbados and is now an Emeritus Professor of Education, living in Barbados. He can be contacted on: [email protected]