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IN THE CANDID CORNER – To what end, Mr Minister?


Matthew Farley

IN THE CANDID CORNER – To what end, Mr Minister?

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. . . Unless there is a commitment to improve the quality of children leaving the primary level, the ministry will always have to spend more on remediation at the secondary level. – Strategic Plan 2002-2012, Page 25.
Recently, Minister of Education and Human Resource Development Ronald Jones made some interesting remarks with respect to the Common Entrance Examination and school performance in general.
Speaking from the headquarters of the ministry, Mr Jones, a former educational practitioner of much standing, warned parents that transfers from one school to another after the allocation based on the Barbados Secondary School Entrance Examination (BSSEE) would not be forthcoming. Noting that secondary schools have limited space and places, the former Barbados Union of Teachers boss alluded to what he called prejudices built up over the years as being the basis for the mad rush by parents to circumvent the 11-Plus allocation.
The minister opined that part of the problem related to the comparisons which continued to be made between older and very recent secondary schools. He went on to stress one of the most fundamental tenets in education. It is the fact that everyone learns differently.
It is on this basis that the minister is reported to have made a strong case for the maintenance of the hierarchical structure of our school system. As Mr Jones put it: “It makes no sense placing a student who needs remediation into a school which concentrates on high and heavy academics.”
He also strongly contended that it made sense placing such a child in a school where the emphasis was on remediation. In 2010, while giving an account of my stewardship as principal of Garrison Secondary School, I observed that there was evidence to suggest that many students leave the newer secondary schools just as well certified as those who were allocated to schools described by the minister as those “concentrating on high and heavy academics”.
In fact, some statistics presented by Dr Roderick Rudder, Senior Education Officer in the Planning Section of the Ministry of Education, at a recently convened workshop, indicate that some students who performed badly in the BSSEE at 11, were emerging after five or six years just as well or better qualified as others who entered secondary school with very high scores.
When I made my comments, I was taken to task by some of my colleagues who argued that I was relegating some schools while elevating others. It was heartening to hear key ministry spokesmen, including my former colleague Mr Jones, confirming my observation which was based on the same evidence to which we all now have access. It is my contention that the minister’s remarks hit at the heart of many of the issues and problems affecting our educational system, which though fundamentally sound, has long been crying out for change in critical areas. 
At another forum, Minister Jones highlighted the global imperatives undergirding the need for us to embrace information and communications technology in all its dimensions, if the products of our schools were to be prepared to live and function in today’s fast-paced, technology-driven world.
He is absolutely right! It is for this reason the past ten years have seen the majority of our schools and teachers on a diet based on the new pedagogical theories. The word constructivism has been the buzzword on the lips of every teacher who understands his role.
Principals have been leading their schools and have in many instances gotten the buy-in of their staff. Government invested $385 million in the Education Sector Enhancement Programme. The teachers’ unions and the Ministry of Education finally agreed on a satisfactory method of evaluating teachers. This is now part of Cap.41 of the Laws Of Barbados. 
Portfolio assessment and project work are finding their way more and more into our school culture. We are embracing systems of behaviour management from foreign jurisdictions lock, stock and barrel. Notions like child friendly schools and positive behaviour management systems are among the novel concepts that we have taken on.  
Put differently, we continue to put new wine in old wine skins. Yet our system of assessment remains untouched. 
As a educational practitioner of 38 years in the system, I challenge the Ministry of Education to bring the empirical evidence to justify the retention of this ‘sacred cow’. I further challenge the ministry to renew the search for an alternative modality for transferring students from primary to secondary education. 
In conclusion, Mr Minister, it is impossible to engage in any serious deliberations about teaching and learning in 2011 without confronting the debilitating effects of the so-called “Screaming Test”. 
Indeed, Mr Minister, the evidence in your argument is more supportive of reform than it is of retention. While the politician within you might have problems juggling the ‘hot potato’, it is the educator within you that must cool it for more careful and objective analysis. 
 
Matthew D. Farley is a secondary school principal, chairman of the National Forum On Education, and a social commentator. 

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