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By Ralph Jemmott
Barbadians generally and some parents more specifically have expressed concern about the reduction in the number of Barbados Scholarships and Exhibitions awarded this year. This is not in itself a cause for serious education concern. We should more legitimately be concerned about the number of students who scored below 30 per cent in the recent Common Entrance Exam.
The latter has greater societal implications than the number of grade 1 CAPE passes. The CAPE results represent the apex of the Secondary/Tertiary cycle of Barbadian schooling. There should therefore be a genuine concern if there is a perceptible fall-off in academic performance over a significant period of time. Perhaps the recent fall-off is not so significant as to raise a panic.
To win a Barbados Scholarship a candidate must earn a grade 1 in every subject at CAPE in both Unit 1 and Unit 2 as well as in the two subsidiary one unit courses, Communication Studies and Caribbean Studies one of which can be taken either in the Lower Sixth or Upper Sixth forms. Thus there are eight overall tests.
Apparently the decline in scholarships awarded is in large measure a consequence of weak performance in the two one-unit courses, especially the Communication Studies. It would appear that this fall-off is more evident at Queen’s College than any other school. For three successive years, in Communication Studies, this school has scored low grades, with every student in a particular class receiving a grade 3.
At Queen’s a number of candidates have gained six grade ones in the three main subject disciplines but a grade three in Communication Studies thus obviating the possibility of winning the Barbados Scholarship. This year QC netted only two scholarship awards. One parent in that situation has had the temerity to suggest that CXC should get rid of the Communication exam altogether. This inclines one to wonder whether Scholarship winning is now more about the ‘scholarship money’ than about the intrinsic values of ‘scholarship’. But then education like everything else has become infused with transactional utilitarian values rather than intrinsic worth.
The Classical/Liberal notion of creating an ‘educated mind’ has for the most part lost its efficacy. One assumes that CXC in its esteemed wisdom sees Communication and Caribbean Studies as pivotal to its educational mission. That however might be mere wishful thinking. When one enquires one gets the impression that there might be issues with both the Communication and Caribbean studies programmes.
There seems to be two apprehensions. The first is that there are teachers teaching the courses who may not be fully equipped to handle them. This is in part because the content material in both cases is too vast and varied beyond the capacity of some tutors to cope with the variegated subject matter. In the Communication Studies programme I understand that additional content was increased ad hoc and recklessly at the behest of one subject coordinator.
The Caribbean Studies syllabus which I taught for two years before retirement was difficult to cover adequately in the time allotted. Some teachers could cover some areas of study while hard put to do others. I am told that in both these programmes additional private tutorship is often required at some parental expense.
A parent who attended one of the recent meetings with CXC is reported by the Sunday Sun of September 10, 2023 as having become ‘emotional’. She questioned how it was that her daughter could obtain grade 1’s in Physics, Maths and Biology and a grade 3 in Communication Studies. What the overwrought mother may not understand is that Communication and Caribbean studies may require some very different skill sets from the exact sciences.
A friend who is retired but still teaching CAPE privately, has informed me that increasingly she is seeing students even at that level who are not writing well and lack syntactical and analytical language competencies. Some time ago a teacher of linguistics at Cave Hill publicly complained that she was receiving students who did not seem to know the difference between ‘they’ and ‘their’.
In addition my friend advises that students are reading less and less and their lack of general knowledge is shocking. Only a week ago a report on one of the American networks stated that only 40 per cent of students in the US read for pleasure. In an increasingly visual/ technological culture, students are losing both the facility for writing well and the desire to write well. So many CAPE candidates do not read widely and they don’t write well but Mummy expects a Grade 1 in Communication Studies.
I once complained about a student not using the apostrophe S. She wanted to know if that was ‘a big thing’. A student who passed CXC English language in Fourth Form could not understand why the school was forcing him to repeat it in Fifth. As far as he was concerned he had ‘passed that already’.
Language competence is a persistent endeavour related to vocabulary expansion and the grasp of increasingly complex concepts where in the words of Nobel Prize winning laureate Wole Soyinka ‘one has to plumb for a meaning’.
An article in Dialogue Magazine long ago questioned whether we are nor in fact seeing what the writer called ‘the death of literacy’. Too many children today not only do not write well they seem to not care about writing well. The late Dr Yvon Rochell, reading something her interns at the QEH had written, posed the question: ‘Who on earth taught you all to write English?’
Ralph Jemmott taught history and Caribbean studies for many years at Harrison College.