Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the author(s) do not represent the official position of Barbados TODAY.
By Ralph Jemmott
In the first of this three-part article I looked at the section dealing with what the document itself termed ‘Persistent under-performance, barriers to success’.
Another section of the document is headed ‘Road to Success… how we propose to travel’. It outlines six paths to success. These include improving instructional quality, strengthening the school and system leadership, updating and enhancing the regulatory framework, providing and enhancing physical facilities to contribute to the improvement of student outcomes, strengthening the integration of technology in the instructional programme and developing programmes and curricula which contribute to economic diversification. These are all recognisably lofty goals.
What is significant is the ‘Proposed Structure’ on which we are invited to travel on the ‘Road to success’. In some respects with two significant alterations, the basic structure remains the same. The foundation is still pre-primary schooling (nursery or kindergarten) that ranges from ages from three to five years. The second foundational level is still primary schooling ranging from ages five to 11. However the BSSEE, (eleven plus or Common Entrance) has, we are told, been abolished.
However, sometime after age 11 most students will still proceed to ‘junior academies.’ There is no mention of the term ‘middle school’ only of ten junior academies taking pupils from ages 12-14. These will presumably be the equivalent of the junior levels in our current secondary system but what has finally been made clear is that they will constitute a separate level in a new type of school, an intermediate between primary and an academy of excellence. The term ‘academy’ sounds sophisticated and nice, but they are just schools. At the final stage, academies of excellence will cater to students ages 15 to 18.
There are some key questions to be asked about this “new basic education structure for Barbados’. In the document, one of the stated objectives of the ‘world-class ideal Bajan student’ is ‘critical thinking’. For all the talk about critical thinking, persons in authority in Barbados do not take kindly to critical thinking if it goes against the grain. As a very young teacher at the Parkinson Memorial I told a senior teacher that I would like to make a suggestion to the visiting Chief Education Officer Erskine Rawlins. The elderly teacher asked me: ‘You want to make a suggestion to the CEO?’ Then he said, ‘ Young man, suggestions are like rain, they come down, they do not come up.’
The first step on which the reformers ‘propose to travel’ is as stated in the document to ‘Abolish the Barbados Secondary School Entrance Examination (BSSEE).
Having abolished the 11-plus what mechanism of transfer from primary to the secondary level will now be obtained? There has to be some knowledge of what cognitive level each child has reached. On what basis will that be determined if there is not some kind of assessment. There has to be some kind of assessment at age 11 whatever one might want to call it. How does the principal and staff of a junior academy distinguish between the girl who got 100 per cent in Maths and English and an “A” in the essay and the child who got below 20 in both and “D” in the essay? The Ministry of Education will not release how many fall into each category. The document says nothing about this only to note that the BSSEE is abolished. It all seems so farcical but the present government can now say that previous administrations didn’t do it but WE have abolished the iniquitous 11-plus. Behold, we give you a new heaven and a new earth for the old things have passed away. No educational ‘classism’ in the New Republic. Truth be told, class stratification is a product of the capitalist mode that distributes its surpluses differentially. It is not simply a product of the school system. The class system in Barbados will not disappear simply because we have abolished the BSSEE. If this aspect of reform is not properly implemented all havoc will break loose. I am led to believe that some parents are already planning to send their children to private secondary schools if the public system is mismanaged in this reform process.
The notion of 14 academies of ‘excellence’ sounds laudable. However one does not create a school or any institution of ‘excellence’ just by declaring it such. Excellence is something that is achieved and sustained over time becoming a part of the ethos or culture of an institution. One cannot simply declare a school to be one of excellence and maybe stick a label near the entrance gate. But, we are living in an age when show and symbolism trumps gravitas and substance.
Some would-be critics have noted that all ten of the junior academies are former newer secondary institutions. They may well note that of the 14 academies of excellence some four or five are also newer secondary schools, including St. George Secondary, Daryll Jordan, Industry High and Alma Paris which are not schools generally seen as being at the top of the pecking order. Not many people seem to know what the ‘New Horizons Academy’ is.
The transfer to the junior academy to an academy of excellence is problematic. The criteria and system of assessment are very important because the academies of excellence involve high levels of specialisation in preparation for career choices and ostensibly to serve the purpose of ‘economic diversification’. The proposed programmes for the 14 academies are perhaps the most unpalatable part of the document. One cannot help but feel that someone sat down and drew up the programmes rather randomly. It makes for interesting but puzzling reading and needs to be fully explained. Again my problem is with the specialisation. These are really schools of specialisation not academies of excellence. As Dr. Kristina Hinds pointed out on BrassTacks of May 23, one has to be wary of too early specialisation. At age 15 children may show multiple abilities, likes and dislikes and many may not be sure of a definitive career path. Besides, it is the parent rather than the child who may determine a student’s career path.
I have a problem with early specialisation because it tends to promote a narrow training rather than a broad education. One of the most foolish suggestions made on talk radio is that children should learn what they wish to learn. This is unholy nonsense. Children should not be left to decide what they wish to learn to the exclusion of all else. One caller stated that she knew of a child, a girl, who at age six knew every song on the radio and had a good voice. The suggestion was she should be directed towards the performing arts at that age. What rubbish. With too early specialisation the tendency is to pre-empt the humanities and the social sciences in favour of what is purely utilitarian and what is perceived to be money earning.
I suggested in my first article that the reform programme as envisaged could be an educational nightmare. It seems to require an overhaul of the complement of the teaching faculty and poses as many problems for transportation as the 11-plus did. If it is messed up as I fear it will, it could also drive teachers into early retirement and deter others from entering an already beleaguered profession. Trust me, persons of ability are not lining up to become career school-teachers.
Ralph Jemmott is a respected, retired educator and commentator on social issues.