Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by this author are their own and do not represent the official position of the Barbados TODAY.
by Dr Ronnie Yearwood
In last’s week column, I talked about the value of critiquing or criticising government policy, even during COVIDd, concluding that this could save lives, because critique could provide ideas or suggestions, or offer insights for policy improvement. This week, I want to continue the discussion looking at education.
Are we behind?
We can appreciate that Barbados is a great country. Boast about it, even. However, we can also appreciate that Barbados needs reform in key areas such as governance, education, and the economy. And candidly talk about that reform, without pride getting in the way of reform.
A former boast can also cease to be relevant. For example, does boasting about Barbados being a great post-colonial society with a high literacy rate make sense in today’s world?
Not likely, when scores about critical thinking in teaching, pupil to teacher ratio, digital skills among people, meritocracy, entrepreneurial culture, and research and development matter. And these all are areas to improve if the Global Competitiveness Report (2019) is anything to go by. Take critical thinking in teaching, Barbados was ranking 117 out of 141 countries with 1 being the highest.
Misused personnel allocation
With a lot of work to be done in education and made more urgent due to COVID, I am somewhat at a loss, as are many people, as to why the substantive minister responsible for education, with a budget of over a half billion dollars, is also responsible for organising care packages.
This is when the nation’s children have not had, in some cases, proper schooling for over a year now and the country has no idea what is happening with the 11-plus and school transfers come September.
Additionally, this is in a government of 29 elected members of parliament and 12 selected senators, so a total of 41 officials at the Parliament level to call upon, and then hundreds of senior civil servants.
Also, if we are honest, the care package scheme seems somewhat botched. Ask yourself, if households that should receive care packages are not receiving packages, while households that should not receive packages are receiving packages, then the delivery of the programme is flawed, even if we conclude it is a good idea.
At some level, the flaws in the programme demonstrate a lack of organisation or rather the inability to properly implement a project. Does that mean the minister is not working hard? No. The minister is likely burning the midnight oil, as many of us do in our jobs. Do we appreciate the efforts of the government? Yes. But is the project yielding all the results it should? Not entirely.
The point is simple, “working hard” is not a balm for results and good policy, even when we can appreciate the effort. Interestingly, in the early part of COVID, the minister responsible for education hired a consultant to coordinate the distribution of the couple thousand tablets and laptops that were donated by the private sector for children but now wishes to be the one distributing care packages. It makes us wonder with all the consultants hired during the last few years if any were project managers.
Education reform by announcement
Immediately following the 2018 general election and several times since, government announced that the 11-plus will be abolished but to date no alternative has been proposed. In the Throne Speech in September 2020, the government stated that its “…intention [was] to reform the transfer from primary to secondary school.
We [Government] will review the Common Entrance Examination and we will work with all of the stakeholders to make every school in Barbados a top school as promised, each specialising in different areas.” Where are the details? What is the transfer to look like? I also remember hearing about “middle schools”, “social workers and psychologists” in schools and “master teachers” but again nothing further from the government on these.
The point is that it is not clear what education reform will look like and that cannot be blamed as I have seen in some spaces on civil servants. If there is no leadership, bar announcements followed by nothing, that is part of the problem.
The removal of the 11-plus is not a one stop solution to education reform which we all can agree on, nor is the vapid idea of making every school a Harrison College or Queen’s College. Every school does not need to be a HC or QC. Every school needs to provide a good quality education and produce well-rounded citizens. That means schools can create their own brands of excellence as I proposed in the recent Errol Barrow Memorial Lecture.
Covid, tech and the 11-plus
The matter of development in education becomes more acute if we conclude that the biggest reform of education, EduTech, to introduce technology into schools appeared to have somewhat failed as there was no successive building on the premise beyond having computers in schools and even that, COVID has shown, was never sustainably manifested.
Children have had uneven access to schooling, because of uneven access to tablets/laptops and the internet, by the government’s own admissions in the recent Throne Speech and the Minister of Education’s announcement in December 2020 that they needed more tablets.
Private schools appear to have implemented robust online learning systems for their students, while it seems that students at government schools have suffered from unclear and unsupported criteria from government with government primary school teachers left to develop their own online teaching methods without adequate devices or home internet. During COVID the gap between private and government schools may have widened. This would be reflected in any 11-plus exam. Therefore, it is fair to ask, can the 11 plus proceed this year as usual?
These are not usual times and may require some adjustment. Here is an idea to try something different at this point. Perhaps, use the grades from students at their Class 3 stage in primary school, with some form of adjusted grades during the current Class 4 given that teachers even during this pandemic would have been assessing students in some way. These grades could provide for the transfer to secondary schools.
The first term in first form in secondary school could be used to bridge any learning related to Class 4 primary, with the second and third terms of secondary school to deliver the first form curriculum.
It will require adjustments across the system, but it may be a better approach than trying to foist an 11-plus exam on ill-prepared, tired, stressed-out children, and on tired and stressed-out households.
Alternatively, if the government intends to press ahead with the 11-plus or rather, I will assume a modified version, perhaps rotate the teachers and not the students. Let the students do the exam at their schools instead of exam centres and have teachers from different schools invigilate to maintain the integrity of the exam.
The Government must try something at this point regarding the 11-plus, while getting plans in place for new types of schools, new transfer systems and general education reform.
Stay safe everyone.
Dr Ronnie Yearwood holds degrees in Political Science, Sociology and Law. He is currently a lecturer in law at The University of the West Indies, Cave Hill. He is a Chevening Scholar, National Development Scholar, and Overseas Research Scholar. He is called as a lawyer in Barbados, England & Wales, and the British Virgin Islands. His areas of interest are varied and include commercial law, international trade, politics and law, education and governance. Email: [email protected]