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IN THE CANDID CORNER: Swan song or high hopes?

Matthew Farley

IN THE CANDID CORNER: Swan song or high hopes?

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We have to accept that private schools are on their way out. – Mr Olivere Cox, principal of the Metropolitan School. The towering figure of my friend and former colleague, now Senator Harry Husbands, visiting a number of private schools across Barbados could be seen in two ways (Weekend Nation, May 17, Page 6).
The Parliamentary Secretary’s visits to these struggling schools must be an inspiration for stalwarts in schools like Industry High (1926) the Unique (1950), Metropolitan (1958) and Mapp’s College (1951), among others.  
Private schools have made a significant contribution to national development. Indeed, long before the Government had the capacity to accommodate the thousands of the secondary school cohort, it was the private secondary sector that gave hope to many families whose children could only dream of entering what we still call the erstwhile grammar schools.
In the annals of our educational history, the name of schools like Modern High (1944), Community High, St Winifred’s (1921)), Seventh-Day Adventist (1953), Washington High (1953), Federal High (1958), St Anthony’s High (1957), Co-operative High, Progressive High (1951), the Barbados Academy (1935), Kaye’s Academy  (1972), Regent High (1953), Windsor High (1951) and Wakefield High must be indelibly written. Our current Minister of Education, Science, Technology and Innovation is a proud product of a private secondary school. Stedson Red Plastic Bag Wiltshire cannot separate his brilliance from Industry High, his alma mater. It is an indisputable fact that many senior civil servants and other executives in this county owe their success to schools like these.
While successive Governments and Ministers of Education have given real and visible support to this sector, the assistance has remained unchanged for the past 29 years. The current help sees Government providing $4 000 for specific courses, a $13 000 book and equipment grant, and payment of a teacher for every 40 students. Since 1984, in spite of numerous visits made by other ministry officials, the level of support has not increased by one red cent. As a consequence, the number of private secondary schools has dwindled almost to a trickle. Four years ago, Mr Patrick Todd – who, I am told, went to Harrison College – also visited a number of these schools where he made certain promises.
If we accept that there is a dire need for at least two additional secondary schools in order to provide full capacity for our secondary cohort – if we accept that many of our public secondary schools are too large and overcrowded – then it would cost Government less to use the available capacity of existing private schools rather than seek to build more schools at a time when there are cash-flow problems. Now is the opportune time for the assistance to private secondary schools which has remained unchanged for over 29 years to be increased to give these schools another lease on life.
The reality is that many parents prefer to send their child or ward to private schools. They are smaller and their environments are conducive to meaningful learning and less disruptive. I verily contend that the whole notion of universal free secondary education is a hoax because parents who exercise the option to send their child to a private school are penalized by virtue of having to pay. Another part of reality is that many parents cannot afford to pay the fees even at the lower end of the spectrum.
Unless all children of school age can access secondary education free at the point of delivery, we cannot truly speak of “free universal secondary education”.
While I am not suggesting that we go there right away, we cannot continue to discriminate against students whose parents opt for private secondary schools. At this point a reasonable compromise would be to increase financial support to these schools and set up a committee to recommend the best approach to levelling the playing field. I have to disagree with Mr Cox. Sir, yes, after close to 60 years you may be on your way out but private schools need not be.
In conclusion, if the Government allows them to die a natural financial death and become extinct, then hundreds of secondary, school-age Barbadians and others will be literally out of school and on our streets.
Now is the time for Government, like Mr Husbands, to acknowledge that there is still a place for private schools and put its money where its mouth has been.
It is my wish that as he sings, plays “blue birds” with and towers over the children, he would bring “high hopes” and not a “swan song” to the issue of private schools in Barbados.
• Matthew Farley is a secondary school principal, chairman of the National Forum on Education, and a social commentator.