The proposed transformation of the Barbadian education system has, not unexpectedly, awakened much interest and much debate. Most of the discourse has been extremely enlightening. Some very informed and rational opinions have reached the public. One recalls articles and letters posted by John Goddard, Dr Dan Carter, Professor Sir Errol Walrond, Paula-Anne Moore, Professor Sir Henry Fraser, John Beale and others.
Goddard’s three-part series was arguably the most informative, and he at least has proposed his own scheme for educational change. His schema is worthy of serious examination as a seemingly implementable construct. Moore’s article, ‘More questions than answers’, really exposes many of the conceptual and logical difficulties of actually putting the reforms into operation. We ignore those issues at our peril if we are not to wake up early in September 2025 to find that we have created an ungodly mess. Barbadian parents will be very unforgiving if the reform movement turns out to be the disaster it promises to be.
Beale has recognised “the implications for confusion and disruption of the lives and efforts of students, parents and teachers”. His article, published in another section of the Press, was entitled ‘Priorities for Transformation in Education’. He made the point earlier made by myself, Goddard and others that it is not enough to simply post the acclamation of ‘excellence’ on a school in the expectation that it will make it such. Beale’s actual words were: “While ‘excellence’ is always a goal, it cannot be achieved merely with the name and it is surprisingly naïve and even amusing of the Ministry of Education to assume that the population of Barbados will accept that a name change will ‘clothe the Emperor in new clothes’.”
Beale goes on to highlight what he sees as the two main problems in local education. The first is one considered by almost all commentators on the subject. That is, the apparent failure at the primary level and the need to improve that situation. The data seems to indicate that about 30 per cent of primary students are not satisfactorily fulfilling the requirements of the primary curriculum. It is difficult to know what would constitute the optimum performance at any level of schooling. It should not be thought that all children will do well at the primary stage. There are countless factors that inhibit learning at all stages of schooling. I have a problem with Goddard’s idea that all children unless they have some form of brain damage can learn. There are any number of issues beyond the physiological that inhibit cognitive development. We should disabuse ourselves of the notion that we can easily reduce the number of primary non-achievers from 30 to say, five or six per cent or zero.
It is my considered opinion that educators generally – and bureaucrats more specifically – persist in ignoring the material and socio-cultural disadvantages that affect children. Barbados is producing a growing underclass of mothers with children whose life chances they struggle to enhance. President of the Barbados Alliance to End Homelessness Kemar Saffrey spoke to more mothers with children seeking safe shelter. How do you think these children are likely to perform academically at age 11? If one is going to seriously transform Barbadian education we may have to effect corresponding transformations in society and economy. That is why so many proposals for school reform fall short of their lofty rhetorical, pedagogical objectives.
I have never taught primary school, but there appears to be some evidence that the 11-Plus is ‘corrupting’ teaching at the primary level. This, I’m told, leads to a situation where teachers teach mainly English and Maths up to Class 3 and spend time in Class 4 doing past Common Entrance papers to secure entrance to the more prestigious schools. I have also been told that this is not quite true. If it is true, then that would constitute nothing less than pedagogical malpractice. But as a friend asked, ‘Who is going to sue who?’ The other legitimate concern is that this is encouraging neglect of the less academically able pupils in the primary system. If this is true, that would constitute an even more egregious malpractice. My question is, if the criticism is valid, then why has the Ministry of Education not picked up on the practice or malpractice and sought to correct it?
Beale’s second concern is “inequity” in the esteem of our secondary schools. This is a fact of history. Ask any parent which schools are at the top and which are at the bottom of the pecking order and you will see the same notion of an existential hierarchy. In fact, that is central to the problem of transfer from primary to secondary schooling in Barbados. The Chief Education Officer is on record as stating that one of the aims of the current reform movement is to create what she calls “equity”. By this, I think she means equality of esteem. There is no such thing in any education system in Western schooling. In most class-structured capitalist societies, the education system reflects the socio-economic inequalities inherent in capitalism. Any democratic polity worthy of the name must, however, seek to reduce those hierarchies but it cannot obliterate them. The late Sir Frank Alleyne once observed that it is very difficult to impose an egalitarian schooling system on a highly stratified socio-economic structure. What a democratic polity must do is spend monies equitably so that all schools get an appropriately fair share of government expenditure.
Beale also raises a point made more recently by Moore when she expressed the hope that the ostensibly consultative process is not mere window-dressing when the ministry has already determined what it intends to do. Parents of children whose futures are at stake cannot be left out of what should be a truly meaningful participatory process.
The Education Sector Enhancement Programme, known as Edutech, was launched with much fanfare. The White Paper on Education Reform promised that Edutech would create what it termed, “a learning revolution”. The education literature states that a programme of education reform should show evidence of positive outcomes from between 7 to 10 years. No one can claim that Edutech fashioned anything approaching “a learning revolution”. If that were so, we might not be undertaking the structural reform we seek today. The notion that the current proposals will guarantee “a bright future”’ for all our children is an even more exorbitant claim.
The Director of the Education Reform Unit Dr Idamay Denny stated recently that any money spent on education is money well spent. That maybe a tad simplistic. It depends on how much money is spent or borrowed and whether we can afford the expenditure. Barbados is not an oil-rich sheikdom. More significantly, it depends on whether the cognitive and affective outcomes are achieved or even achievable.
By the way, Edutech was not a total failure; it certainly enhanced civil works improvement in many of our schools and it did introduce needed computer education to our learning institutions. The proponents of the present transformation should avoid promising too much and should take cognisance of the possibility of its failure affecting many children, years beyond 2025. By all means, avoid the political rush; this is about our children’s future not about somebody’s political egotism.
Ralph Jemmott is a retired educator.