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By Ralph Jemmott
I am the recipient of a copy of a document emanating from the Barbados Ministry of Education, Technological and Vocational Training. It is entitled ‘Education Reform, Brainstorming Session’ and is dated August 2022. Interestingly, on the first page is a quotation attributed to Albert Einstein which states ‘Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.’
It is unquestionably quoted to justify the education reform proposal and there is certainly a truth to Einstein’s observance.
Beyond that, there is always a need for education reform because formal schooling has always to respond to changing socio-cultural and economic conditions. The rapid pace of technological change is one example. When I retired on December 15, 2002 there was not a sign of a cell phone on the Harrison College campus and there were very few computers on the compound outside of the small computer room. There were only two in the staff room. Today, computer literacy is as vital an education imperative as numeracy and literacy.
One other example – in the 1940’s and 1950’s boys and girls were educated to different ends. Many girls went into the commercial and humanities studies fitted to a presumed ‘division of labour.’ All that has legitimately changed as my ‘grand-daughter’ aged seven at the time, told me ‘anything a boy can do, a girl can do’. Formal schooling must of necessity take into account the legitimate claims of gender equity.
The issue is not simply about education reform but what kind of reform is proposed, to what pedagogical ends and perhaps more importantly, how can it be implemented. An observant caller to moderator Barry Wilkinson on Friday May 19 correctly noted that the current proposal says much about structure but appallingly little about strategy. It’s early days yet, but the whole reform initiative could prove an implementation death-trap if it is too hastily and improperly executed. As I once observed, you can’t destroy an educational edifice and rebuild it in three days. The present Ministry of Education has not proven itself entirely competent in relation to implementation capacity.
The initiative is presented by the Prime Minister herself as ‘revolutionary.’ In fact the extravagant claim is made that it seeks to reverse an educational legacy derived from the 1661 slave legislation. Ridiculous hyperbole indeed. As Owen Arthur liked to say ‘foolishness is foolishness, no matter who says it or how often it is said’.
Most documents on Education Reform make some statement concerning their philosophy. In this particular proposal the philosophy is tersely expressed. It states that the objective is to fashion ‘world-class citizens grounded in Bajan values.’ Increasingly it appears that ‘Bajan values’ are giving way to the imperatives of modernity, particularly as they relate to certain gender issues. The same page which shows a small, happy, smiling child, states, ‘each child matters’. The Americans had added that ‘no child left behind.’ This was a republican mantra, but it is noted that the Republican Party in the United States has consistently opposed public spending on welfare projects including schooling for black and brown children. It remains an issue even in the current budget crisis where the Republican Right wants to restrain spending and would even seek to roll back the Affordable Care Act or Obama Care.
The point is that education slogans more often than not, tend to reflect political strategy rather than pedagogical insight.
On the page in the document headlined ‘Barriers to Success’ there is an arrow pointing downward which is captioned ‘Persistent underperformance.’ There are some legitimate dissatisfactions with Barbadian schooling, but truth be told, no one knows with any degree of certainty how the local education system is performing across the board in terms of how well it can realistically be expected to perform. I have consistently called for the Ministry of Education to release the performance figures in the Common Entrance over the last five years. That might give citizens generally and parents specifically, at least some idea how the system is performing at the primary level. I am consistently told that the Ministry of Education will not release such figures. Maybe it is not seen as the people’s business. So much for transparency and accountability.
It is difficult to know the optimality of performance of an educational system. No intelligent person would expect that 100 per cent of any cohort of children will score 100 in the Common Entrance Exam or that 100 per cent of any cohort will reach CXC’s CSEC or CAPE levels. Formal schooling takes place in the real world with all its challenges and pitfalls.
There are, as the document itself suggests, serious ‘barriers to success.’ These are factors that, to use an American Football (NFL) league analogy, ‘run interference’ with the forward play. The document lists 11 such interferences, including lack of parental support, substance abuse, student disengagement and indiscipline, weak leadership and instructional quality, lack of a normalised evaluation system and bullying, violence and peer pressure. Some of these come from within the school system itself but just as many relate to psycho-social deficits within the wider Barbadian culture. Gladstone Holder often quoted Colm Brogan’s statement that an education system hardly ever rises above the socio-cultural ambience in which it functions.
Most of the failures in the local educational system relate to factors outside of the schools themselves. As any practicing teacher would tell you, the contemporary classroom is buckling under the weight of what the Greeks call the paedeia, external influences that educate children to bad ends and distract from the positive purposes that schools try to achieve. The structural reforms enunciated in the document now in circulation, will not in themselves significantly improve performance outcomes if the cultures inside and outside of our schools continue to deteriorate.
The school systems that are performing best in the world, in places such as Finland, the other Scandinavian countries, Japan, Singapore and South Korea are those that have two consistently positive attributes. There is a learning culture that is conducive to learning on both the cognitive and affective levels and there is a reasonably high level of material and social wellbeing, that is, marginal level of economic and cultural poverty.
It is said that even the poorest schools in Japan would be the envy of some of the best public schools in the United States. If the news is to be believed, Barbados is experiencing a substantive level of poverty, homelessness and social disorder. We eagerly await the ‘transformations’ that alone can sustain lasting education reform.
Ralph Jemmott is a respected retired educator and regular contributor on social issues.