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By Walter Edey
Society benefits from history’s vault filled with patterns and trends, seasons and cycles. While successive generations crave something new and different, modern cars still have the form of the horse, one of the earliest forms of transport: a head, four wheels and a tail that obey the same laws of motion as the horse did, when it moved across a landscape.
When past patterns and trends are explored and analysed, and integrated into current seasons and cycles, the past enriches the present with a watchful eye on the future.
Over the years, the Barbados education system produced exemplary graduates who continue to leave their mark globally, especially in the area of academics. The graduates’ pathway was built on a British primary school platform and universally-used curricula, pedagogy, and proficiency assessment instruments. In some schools, the campus idea of Eton or Oxford, facilitated the formation of community – and enriched socialisation, two primary core concepts of family and learning.
The Oxford and Cambridge curriculum and exams were a central object and instrument of education in secondary school. This mode of assessment was also used by the Caribbean, as well as the countries of the Commonwealth including Africa, England, India or Singapore. The record of achievement by Barbadian students remains remarkable. They were among the students in the upper tier; several attended universities in Canada and the United States and not only received high scores in standardised graduate exams, but completed four-year graduate courses in three years, because of their “A” level performance.
Additionally, in the 1950’s and 1960s, Barbadians after emigrating to England, and working on the London Transport and in the nursing systems with acclaim, successfully transitioned to areas of accounting, medicine, engineering and law and others. This included some who possessed an old-fashioned primary school education.
Finally, when the University of the West Indies (UWI) started in Barbados in 1963, a significant number of Oxford and Cambridge certificate holders in the civil service and teaching service filled many seats and completed degrees.
The Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC) is now the testing body. Still the success stories in the academic area continue. The reform question in this case is the cost of administering the programme. The reason, Singapore schools opted to continue using the Oxford and Cambridge exams. Their reform steps addressed issues like the native tongue and career pathways consistent with local objectives.
By scrutinising and understanding these academic pathways, including objects and instruments that shaped and formed these success stories, any education reformer, local or otherwise, should be able to tweak them as they seek to create a better version of the system for the present and future generations of Barbadians to come.
That said, even if the established primary/secondary school system is kept, there are other significant factors that influence or hinder this kind of student learning. These include cost of administering education, school size, pupil/teacher ratios, economic and social family circumstances, cost of teacher development and training and access to a school among others. These are not challenges peculiar to Barbados. The New York school system for example, introduced charter schools – a private/public enterprise administered by the creators, supported by grants from the public purse operating within a predetermined government policy.
Additionally, the City of New York school administration broke up some of the large schools, and on the same campus replaced them with smaller schools, each with assigned principals, still sharing common school resources and accommodated through different start, lunch, and end times. This is an option that the ministry should consider even if because of the proximity of the schools and the savings that accrue.
In the 1960’s the Foundation schools were two smaller schools sharing resources. At that time it allowed teacher-sharing as the need arose. When Queen’s College upgraded its science curriculum, it was made possible by sharing lab resources and teachers at Harrison College where Queen’s College students walked over to Harrison College.
Before metal and wood workshops were added to schools, the technical institute is where many students from secondary schools went for such training. Since many schools are literally next door, this same idea of shared resources, using the busing of students could be applied to computer and robotic labs etc that now form part of the academic curriculum.
The government, the agent of reform, owns and runs the largest number of schools. Its annual education budget is in the region of $800 million and currently the government has a very high debt profile. Yet reform, the natural iterations of an academic fibre that continues to serve Barbados well, can and should be guided by history and not modernity. Ultimately, the search for a better version of the Barbados education system is a creative challenge that every Barbadian should undertake with joy and hope. When accomplished the transformation will renew Barbados and the Bajan mindset.
Walter Edey is a retired maths and science educator in Barbados and New York.