Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the author(s) do not represent the official position of Barbados TODAY.
by Paula-Anne Moore
It is exciting to see the vision, values and goals incorporated in the muchvaunted, eagerly anticipated National Education Transformation Proposals. The timing is particularly relevant as we reposition our national development in this next phase: 60 years post- Independence and as a two-year-old Republic.
We all agree that our existing system is not fair and does not sufficiently serve the majority of our children’s needs. Those who are socioeconomically disadvantaged, differentlyabled, require specialist learning support, or have non-academic skill sets – vocational, creative, athletic – are too often left behind and/ or considered second-class students. Those who can thrive academically should not need a deeply entrenched private lessons industry at primary and secondary school to ensure success.
We do not have curricula, starting at primary school, that effectively teach foreign languages, STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) and other modern subjects, geared to achieve internationally competitive success.
It has become popular rhetoric, and therefore politically expedient, to promote the abolition of the 11-Plus exam, perhaps with good reason. Much less comment has focused on the deficiencies in the seven years of primary school, often revealed in the 11-Plus performance of many primary school students and their schools.
This lends itself to exploitation by some teachers who fail to teach the subject in the classroom, but who then derive maximum economic benefit by giving private lessons.
These deficiencies have led to the proliferation of private primary schools, which is inherently unfair to those with fewer financial resources.
Considerable, commendable effort has resulted in the proposals. The plans for universal primary school testing (sight, hearing and neurodivergency, inter alia) and mandatory pre-primary education are particularly excellent and are essential first steps in ‘levelling the playing field’.
However, too many of these proposals elicit significant concerns which regrettably have not been allayed in the information presented during the past three town halls, all of which I have watched.
Frankly, parental feedback is that there are more questions than answers (and some of the official answers are more confusing than anything).
This is why we said from the beginning that these proposals needed to be far better documented, with significantly greater details, so that we could make better-informed decisions and raise more nuanced questions. Google the Jamaican National Education Reform Document for comparison.
Anyone who has been involved in change management projects would know that if the change does not take into account, and specifically address prevailing cultural norms, that change will not have optimal buy-in from key stakeholders.
Parents will have to be convinced by data, not just promises, that there is a benefit to a two-tier secondary school system that outweighs the risk cost and disruption of education and learning for an entire national education system – all proposed with very little lead time. The timing of the proposed transition from junior to senior colleges of excellence is smack in the middle of foundational preparation for CXCs. How can that be anything but disruptive?
Presumably, the students might also be prepping for the alternate certification that has been promised. But what are the details of said certification alternate to CXC? Why are the proposed colleges not identified upfront in the proposals’ documentation? That is a glaring – or deliberate – omission of what should be basic fundamental information to the public, particularly to current and future parents.
We are told that cost calculation for the transformation cost is only currently in progress.
Financing is not yet secured? Is the change management office to manage the transformation project not yet established? No detailed project implementation plan (Gantt chart) was provided to education stakeholders for review and comment? No timeline for each phase of activity within the project plan provided to the public? No pilot testing proposed? No phasing-in of this change from the bottom up: pre-primary and primary first, presuming prerequisite financing, public communication, teacher numbers and teacher and parent training in place?
The proposals are really to not phase in the secondary level change, grandfather-in or simultaneously run old and new systems? Just switch over wholesale to the entire new system like turning on a switch? Fuh trute? I’m sorry, but that is not how a successful business project is implemented. Education is a business. A business service that should accord with basic principles of project and change management.
Who were the members of this committee that devised this transformation proposal? Was it made up of various parental reps other than the NCPTA (who were largely unreachable, silent and AWOL during the CXC injustices in exam admin 2020-2022)? Were project managers members of the committee? Change managers?
Were the proposals reviewed by international experts in national education projects to ensure adherence to global best practices in this sphere? This is why diversity in decision-making – from the ground up – and effective engagement of stakeholders is so imperative to maximise successful outcomes – again, a key change management principle.
The foregoing are all major areas of parental concern. The status quo is not how one builds parental confidence in the proposals, as wellintentioned as they clearly are.
And all of this transformational, fundamental upending of decades of a national public education system is expected to commence in the academic year 2025/6? Fulsome communication is fundamentally important for an issue so vitally central to every Bajan family.
We were initially promised 13 public town halls; they have now been cut to five, without explanation. The nation has the right and deserves more time to comment in the same manner that the Constitutional Reform Commission has had many more town hall opportunities. Limiting contributions to two minutes at the town hall is frankly disrespectful to the Bajan public.
We need to adjust our champagne aspirational tastes to our mauby pocket realities and welldocumented national implementation challenges in other projects much less complex than these proposals.
Our conclusions are that the proposals as currently presented are aspirational and worthy objectives, but are just not realistic in the current proposed execution.
The requisite improvements to our national education system can be made within the existing primary and secondary school structure initially.
This would be far less disruptive and less expensive.
This transformation needs a well-documented, phased five to ten-year timeline – after basic project management prerequisites are achieved.
The proposals’ transition process to secondary school remains unclear. Instead, the 11-Plus can be reconfigured to reduce its negative attributes but can still serve as a useful standardised assessment test, and/or primary school exit exam, but extend its timing for 11-13-year-olds depending on their readiness as assessed by their teachers. Our culture is test-driven.
That is our reality. It will be a generational change if it ever changes. Children hear they don’t have a test – best believe many won’t bother to study!
Secondary schools can indeed have a more mixed ability intake, but presumably streaming of classes would still occur, as obtains in North American public systems.
As I wrote months ago and as a town hall contributor said last night, Bermuda is currently trying to reverse what some have deemed a disastrous education reform of nearly 30 years ago where they too abolished their 11-Plus equivalent and introduced middle schools (a two-tier secondary level). Result: parents who could afford, fled to private schools. There was a significant reduction in the prestige and reputation of the public schools, which were left to those families who could not afford private school fees.
We cannot rush this implementation to meet what appears to be an arbitrary and unrealistic deadline. Too much is at stake. A good start, great intentions, and “nuff wuk” clearly went into the proposals, for which the nation is grateful.
However, the proposals need to go back to the drawing board and come back to the public before finalisation. Unless these public consultations are just a check-the-box exercise and the decision has already been made to make the proposals a reality.
The government has not yet convinced us parents that their proposals will not result in a leap from the frying pan into the fire! Until then, better the devil you know.
Paula-Anne Moore is the spokesperson/ coordinator for the Group of Concerned Parents, Barbados and the Caribbean Coalition for Exam Redress.