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by Dr Garry Hornby
The recent press conference by the Minister of Education and senior officials confirms that they are well aware of the serious differential effects of COVID 19 on children’s education over the past year and are working hard to deal with this very difficult situation. There was good news and bad news.
The bad news is that pushing out the date for the Common Entrance Examination (CEE) to 28th July prolongs the agony for those children involved, of having the sword of Damocles hanging over them for another seven weeks, ready to fall and decide their educational futures and declaring them successes or failures at the age of 11.
The good news is that Dr Denny requested feedback and suggestions on possible ways forward, so here goes:
First, do not encourage parents and teachers to seek to defer, or hold back children. Extensive research evidence indicates that grade retention, or repeating a year at school, is detrimental to the education of most children who are made to do this.
Instead support structures for children with learning difficulties need to be put in place in all schools as part of a comprehensive policy for those with special needs.
This involves putting learning support coordinators, who have expertise and training in teaching children with special needs, into all secondary schools.
They can then identify those with difficulties and work with these children and their teachers to develop the skills they need. I discussed this at length in my article entitled Effective Education for Barbados TODAY on June 4th, 2019.
Second, abandon the idea of remedial literacy/numeracy programs for a proportion of new first formers.
As Dr Denny said, it is more effective to teach reading at the secondary school level within the context of subjects being taught. Emphasis needs to be on, ‘reading to learn’ rather than, ‘learning to read’.
Children with weak literacy and numeracy skills have already been bombarded with basic literacy and numeracy teaching focused on them sitting the CEE for five years in primary school, and it has not worked for them.
So all it will do is frustrate them further and is therefore an approach that is doomed to failure.
Instead, learning support coordinators could work with these children and their teachers to develop the skills of reading to learn, as discussed above.
Third, have the courage of your convictions and do not go ahead with transferring children to secondary schools this year based on CEE results.
The results of the mock CEE conducted in May have shown that there are substantial differences in both literacy and particularly in numeracy, between those children
who have attended private rather than government schools.
This confirms that using CEE results as the basis for transfer to secondary schools ensures a bias towards children from wealthy homes that can afford to send their children to private schools.
This cannot possibly be justified. Instead, transfer children to the secondary schools that are nearest to their homes, making them community schools with more involvement of parents and members of the community.
As I explained in the article, Ending School Violence, in Barbados TODAY on November 19th 2019, this will promote the development of constructive behaviour patterns in our young people and will reduce disruptive and violent behaviour both at school and in the community.
Fourth, I fully support the announcement of the development of technical and vocational development programs leading to CVQs for secondary schools, to operate alongside academic programmes leading to CXC.
The suggested idea of using a credit-based system for assessment and accreditation of CVQs is a really good one that has been adopted in New Zealand in the place of examinations at age 16.
Such changes would address the unsustainable current situation of over 70 per cent of children leaving school in Barbados with no qualifications.
In my opinion, the suggestions made in the press conference, while well intentioned, amount to applying band-aids to a gaping wound.
The appointment of Dr Denny to head an education reform group makes it clear that the Ministry knows that major education reform is needed, including replacing the CEE for transfer to secondary schools.
Not using the current crisis to bring about this much needed change in the education system would be a golden opportunity missed.
Rather than patching up the defects of the current system, a bold vision is needed for creating a world class education system in Barbados, providing all our young people with an excellent education.
This is what our country needs and our children and grandchildren deserve.
Dr Garry Hornby is an Emeritus Professor of Education.