Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the author(s) do not represent the official position of Barbados TODAY.
The literacy rate is an enigma which seems to defy understanding and explanation. After all, how can you boast of having a literacy rate which has hovered around 99 per cent for the last 10 years and yet when persons between 15 and 24 are asked to speak on issues in a public forum, we have to hang our heads in shame as malapropisms and green verbs proliferate, or worse yet, the level of discourse remains at the sub-terranean level, punctuated by language that creates umbrage among the listeners.
Let us begin then with the deconstruction of a literacy rate. What is it, how is it measured and what is its value in real time? According to UNESCO Institute for Statistics, and I quote: “The literacy rate is defined by the percentage of the population of a given age group that can read and write.” There are therefore two literacy rates, adult literacy, and youth literacy. It is typically measured according to UNESCO by evaluating the ability of an individual to read and comprehend a short simple statement about everyday life.
The challenge that we face is that there is no standardized set of tests for literacy, each country determines what battery of tests it will use. Hence the call for a standardised measure so that you are comparing apples with apples. As pointed out by Ortiz-Ospina and Beltekian (2018) Literacy is a key skill and a key measure of a population’s education. However, measuring literacy is difficult because literacy is a complex multi-dimensional skill. For decades, most countries have been measuring literacy through yes/no, self-reported answers to a single question in a survey or census along the lines of “can you read and write?”.
Further, if you define Literacy as only about reading and decoding words then you are fine. Some of the tests simply require students to read a simple statement; however, if we acknowledge that a major part of reading is comprehension, the ability to apply knowledge and make inferences then we can appreciate why you can have the dichotomous situation of high literacy rates and high failures at the primary and secondary levels.
Barbados has done well and has been doing well, maintaining literacy rates of between 99 and 100 percent. The question therefore remains. Why then do we have what appears to be so many “illiterate persons” who seem devoid of understanding and resort to violence as a first response to problem solving?
The reason is simple, literacy rates are normed on basic standards or building blocks of understanding; however, what is required from our citizens to navigate the issues of life, is an advanced level of understanding which will see them being able to grapple with the many issues that confront our society today. It is for this reason that we have what appears to be a contradiction in the data on literacy or literacy rates and what we see manifested at the societal level. In other words, there is no direct correlation between a high literacy rate and productive citizenship. A literacy rate is, let me reiterate, an indicator of potential to learn and a basic measure.
This may seem harsh but let me explain why I have come to this conclusion. Notwithstanding the impact of COVID, the most recent CXC results for 2022 across the Caribbean, are in the main, far from flattering. For example, in English A the overall pass percentage was 71 per cent, with 19 per cent grade ones, 24 per cent grade twos and 25 per cent grade threes. In English B the overall pass percentage was 72 per cent, broken down as follows: Grade ones 14 per cent, grade twos 28 per cent and grade threes 30 per cent. Yet when you look at the Literacy rates for 2020 and 2022. I can guarantee that they would still be hovering around 99.7 per cent.
In other words, ladies and gentlemen, being able to boast of a high literacy rate does not automatically translate into a population that is equipped to actively and meaningfully engage on the major issues. Put differently, we are beating our chests and proudly displaying literacy rates while our 15-24 age group is showing clear signs that they are not acquiring the knowledge, skills and attitudes that would enable them to be truly literate.
I will go a bit further and highlight that even before CXC we have the much-vilified Common Entrance. Data from 2010 to 2022 revealed that for the most part the examination was not delivering for most of the students but producing manufactured “failures” and I put that in quotation marks. However, I will return to this debate a little later in the discourse. Again, the question would be asked, if we have such a high literacy rate, why then are our students not performing as they ought to. The answer again lies in the fact that literacy rates do not tell the full story. Literacy rates measure the basics but to navigate real life, requires more than the basic. So, I suggest that we as a people, while acknowledging that we have a high literacy rate must be prepared to go a bit further and engage new definitions of literacy.
I propose therefore, for your consideration political literacy and argue that a literate population is one that will hold the political directorate accountable for its actions. For example, a truly literate population would be able to understand that you cannot squander the pensions of our retired and retiring persons and then pretend that the issues surrounding pensions have now come to the fore.
In other words, don’t engage in incendiary actions that razed the pension scheme almost to the ground and then invite me to be part of the Fire Service Team to battle a blaze that has almost consumed the building. Especially when the same citizens would have faithfully and sacrificially paid their increased national insurance contributions, on the advice of actuaries who correctly determined, at that time, that the way to have a sustainable fund would be to increase said contributions.
A literate population would recognize that if one is to reform the national insurance scheme, we must ensure that persons who have paid their dues in taxes while working, should not be asked to pay taxes on pensions, while other political servants pay no taxes at all and are entitled to pensions after two terms.
A literate population would be able to understand that Auditor General report after Auditor General report though heralding ad nauseum that the way we conduct the affairs of the people is suspect, to say the least, would always be ignored. And would therefore demand a higher level of accountability.
A literate population would ensure that after a company had used the promise of tremendous savings in our light bills as a premise for an increase in rates, failed to deliver and returns a decade later with the same argument as a basis for yet another increase, would be denied such a rate increase.
A literate population would be able to distinguish between smoke in mirrors, distraction politics and PR stunts. Such a population would demand more than platitudes and words that are designed to connote that “this is who we are” or “we are all in this together” yet we are not.
A literate population would be able to recognize that while they tell us that all schools are created equal that in the words of George Orwell from Animal Farm that “all animals are created equal, but some are more equal than others.” Therefore, any attempt to reform education without being contemplative of this reality, among others, is nothing more than an exercise in futility or as one commentator put it, a Category 5 hurricane to the east of Barbados with a trajectory that aligns with 13 degrees north 59 degrees west. We are delusional if we think that abolishing an exam and changing the nomenclature surrounding schools will address the structural inequalities that plague our educational system. Basic educational planning and policy demands that at the very least, there should be meaningful dialogue with stakeholders, the opportunity to reject an initiative, a pilot phase for any collaboratively determined innovation and a scale-up if the evidence supports such. Yet, here we are on the cusp of the nebulous but full of zeal, declaring we will not be afraid to govern. The acid test of true governance ability is being able to govern when you have a one-seat majority, not when you have an absolute majority. I shudder to think of what this portends for our educational system and for my children and your children. I can see the advent of many private schools.
A literate population would be able to evaluate social welfare policies and recognize that if you continue to feed a man every day, by giving him/her menial, rather than productive employment, characterized by low level and non-transferable skills, is a sure way to drain the public purse and visit more taxation pain on those who faithfully pay their taxes. In short, a literate population would recognize that such is a recipe for building a society of mendicants and learned helplessness.
And finally, a literate population would recognize that literacy whether broadly or narrowly defined must be reflective of who we truly are as a people. Not nodding dummies but people who are articulate and who can think critically to provide sustainable solutions for the challenges facing this and potentially future generations.
So, the question I am sure is at the forefront of your minds is how do we do it? At least for those who are not incensed by all they have read thus far. Or maybe there are those who are quite content with the status quo and may be of the view that we should keep highlighting our high literacy rates, even if based on the evidence, we may be behaving as if we are “illiterate”. I hope that there are not many in this latter category, so on that premise, I will proceed to suggest how we can turn the corner on literacy and make it more relevant in real terms.
I suggest that we start with education. Education is the bedrock of all effective “indoctrination”, and I mean that in the kindest way. If you want to change a society, get it on the school curriculum. The theme for International Literacy Day 2022 is Transforming Literacy Learning Spaces. What does this mean for us in Barbados? Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG4) is to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”. To do this effectively then we need to pay attention to not only primary and secondary education but also adult learning initiatives. More specifically we can do this according to UNESCO by: Building strong foundations through early childhood care and education; providing quality basic education for all children; scaling-up functional literacy levels for youth and adults who lack basic literacy skills; and developing literate environments.
For example, there should be programmes designed to retrain, and by extension, empower those young adults who would have left school without certification but who are desirous of developing themselves in other areas to make themselves more marketable. In times past we had places like BCC, SJPI and several secondary schools being used as centres for Adult and Continuing Education. Many lives were empowered and transformed because of the programmes offered there. We need to do a lot more of that and seek to reach those in society who are on the brink of disaffection.
Public service organizations could assist in these educational pursuits by sponsoring said adults, offering scholarships in niche areas, and restoring a sense of hope for people. Such organizations could also engage in activities designed to hone global citizenship skills such as reading writing and oratorical contests from the primary level all the way to the tertiary level.
The second way to promote true literacy is to raise the profile of consultation on matters of national importance. And I am not talking here about pyrrhic consultations where decisions are already made, and we insult the intelligence of our citizens by having a townhall meeting here and there; while it appears that the ink has already dried on the final policy document. I am talking about consultations that are open to the possibility that what has been proposed may be rejected based on sound reasoning and evidence. I am talking about bona fide consultations that start on the premise of respect for diverse opinions.
It is quite ironic that we talk in glowing terms about how we want critical thinkers and creative thinkers and when these people emerge, we are suddenly confronted with the reality that, essentially, we don’t want such people. We vilify them and put ‘burn notice’ on them, we ostracize them and engage in many instances in educational lynching. We erect our portable lynching trees and string up those who dare to challenge the status quo. So that those who pass by may see, this is what we do to creative thinkers and those who are truly literate.
I go further and propose that we need to embrace the following definition of literacy as advanced by the OECD Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) 2016, as follows: “the ability to understand, evaluate, use, and engage with written texts to participate in society, achieve one’s goals, and develop one’s knowledge and potential.”
So, comrades, we have work to do if we want to ensure that the literacy rates, though factual, have real meaningful significance for our development. Literacy is multi, rather than unidimensional and if we want our society to thrive then we need to embrace literacy in all its dimensions.’
Dr. Ian A. Marshall is a lecturer, Educational Leadership School of Education and President of the West Indies Group of University Teachers (WIGUT), University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus.