I write to commend the splendid guest column by educator Wayne Campbell of Jamaica on World Book Day and the urgent need to address the problem of poor literacy.
Our long-boasted literacy rate of 98 per cent in
Barbados is largely a myth, as it really included many people whose literacy was limited to minimal competence in deciphering a few simple words. Functional literacy is entirely different. In my long career at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, I had a number of patients who could only sign their name with an X, and many who could not read anything on the labels on their medication.
Today, the problem is magnified by the cultural phenomena of cell phones, tweeting and the almost complete disregard for books and reading. The fact that books open the world to anyone and have the power to transform lives has been forgotten. Is there a solution? Yes – there are many possible solutions but two most important ones.
The first is to address the failure of our primary school education. A few years ago, failure rates in the Eleven Plus exam of around 40 per cent were reported in the press. Children were forced to enter secondary school, unable to read or to read with understanding. Those results are no longer reported, perhaps because it is unkind to acknowledge failure of any kind, and the latest data I can find provides a figure of roughly a quarter of candidates scoring less than 30 per cent in the English exam. This is scandalous, if correct. Perhaps I have misinterpreted what is on the web, and if so, I crave the indulgence of the Chief Education Officer.
However, this is a tragedy, if not a scandal, and no one in authority seems to consider it unacceptable. Our approach to primary school education, about which I have written and spoken in the senate, is unacceptable, and no one seems to care. It is an urgent problem.
The second obvious solution, and there are others, is to expand the excellent efforts I have read about started by the National Transformation Initiative’s Literacy Programme, under the Division of Youth Affairs. But while this seems an excellent project, it will need massive expansion, and is not the long-term solution.
That must begin, urgently, in the primary schools, with teachers well trained in promoting full literacy, so that at age eleven our children are functionally literate. Otherwise, they enter secondary school blindfolded and with one arm behind their backs. Come on!
Professor Emeritus Sir Henry Fraser