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Clarity Needed

WIGNALL’S WORLD

MARK WIGNALL

Sunday, July 06, 2014    

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According to the educator with a PhD in Mathematics, placing every child who takes GSAT in the secondary school system -- from a 'no-name' junior high to top institutions like Immaculate and Campion -- is perpetuating an evil because it does not allow any child to fail.

"I came from a terribly disadvantaged home. Never knew my father, my mother bought and sold everything she could and died early from the stress of it. It was left up to my grandmother who plodded along until the sheer strain of poverty killed her. After that I was bouncing around from uncle to aunt to friend of the 'family' until I as a child found myself homeless. I had to fend for myself on the streets but there was something inside of me which told me that school had to be a part of my childhood," the educator said.

Many of the youngsters he ran around with were themselves from broken homes, and the easiest thing to do was forget about school. "Of course, all of them grew up and became men. The majority of them took up the gun and were eventually killed, either by the police or other gunmen like themselves," he added.

He grew up in the belly of the beast, that is, adjacent to the Kingston waterfront, and attended one of the primary schools which was in shouting distance of the home for the criminally hardened -- that high-walled fortress known as General Penitentiary (GP).

"It was always a joke among some adults when I was growing up. Many said it was the lucky ones from these primary schools who ended up at high schools like KC, Wolmer's or JC. The majority would 'pass' Common Entrance and eventually 'graduate' to GP.

"The first time I took the Common Entrance I failed, but I was quite young. When I took it the second time I failed again. By that time my only option was the Technical Entrance exam which was more difficult but by that time, between the first failure and taking the Technical Entrance exam, I had sharpened up, gained some badly needed focus and realised that my natural strength was in the STEM -- science, technology, engineering and math -- areas. I passed and eventually got a higgler friend to stitch together some uniforms for me so that I would be presentable in school."

His tale is an epic one of living on the streets and surviving beyond all odds, but that is for another time. The focus now is on the usefulness of failing. "At the least, if the child has guidance, firstly from parents but mostly from teachers, the weak points can be worked on. The buzzword in the education ministry is now STEM or even STEAM with the A meaning the arts. The fact is, it is all buzz because there is no money to pay for it.

"We cannot just want to focus on this new STEAM without putting in place the schools that will be equipped to deal with it and the teachers who are properly trained. The way the system is set up now, every child 'passes' and is placed in the secondary school system. The truth is, many of them are ill-prepared for that system. Were they allowed to fail, the necessary stimulation and retraining in their weaknesses would be done in the primary schools. At the secondary school level, it is much too late, and by that time the clash happens between frustrated and confused students and totally confounded teachers."

According to my PhD friend, the worst of it is that the teachers at the primary school level, especially in the socially disadvantaged communities, have no real impetus to put out anything extra because he or she knows every child is going to be placed at some level in the secondary school system.

"That is the real tragedy. Too many of the teachers simply accept that the children 'head tough', so they just go through the motions and none of the children are allowed to fail," he said.

Just recently I examined the GSAT results from a primary school in the 'belly of the beast', that is, in the heart of downtown Kingston. Just under 25 students sat the GSAT and only two were placed at brand-name high schools. The top student, a girl, scored 92 per cent on average and the other, a boy, scored 79 per cent.

Only two students were placed in STEM schools, that is technical high schools, but the marks scored indicate that the two children are far from ready to attend technical high schools.

In Math and Science the average was 62 per cent and 67 per cent, hardly marks that would indicate readiness for those subjects at a much higher level. Students who were placed in junior high scored around 32 per cent on average and the real shock, those who were placed in non-brand-name high schools averaged out at less than 40 per cent.

When a child leaves the primary school system with a 40 per cent scoreline and enters high school of whatever brand, that is a recipe for disaster.

If what the education ministry is saying is that 'John Brown High' will only accept students who scored between 37 per cent and 44 per cent, then if the theory could hold true, specialist teachers could be placed on roster to deal with them. But that cannot be the main aim of teaching in high school. A few remedial classes, yes, but certainly not the main focus of the school.

If 'John Brown High' also accepts students who scored in the high 60 per cent and low 70 per cent, isn't it more the reality that the general teaching will be more in catering to the 37 per cent to 44 per cent until those in the 70 per cent fall to the lower level?

It is an ideal that schools like Immaculate and Campion have made no pretence about. Those schools simply do not accept 'tough-headed' pupils and five years later turn out students who top the exams at grades 12 and 13. The teachers in those schools are all fired up and so are the students. The result of the synergy with parental involvement is a general happiness for all involved until the next headache is presented in finding fees for tertiary education.

On the opposite side of that approach would be the schools that only accept the 40 per cent. The teachers become practised in a destructive rote and the students go along for the ride. Five years later, those students who are still in the system can hardly navigate their way through basic algebra and English Language.

"At the primary school level we must make the decision that ultimately, education of our children must be about making them prepared for a world where, to varying degrees, they will be able to survive as viable adults," said my friend.

"Very few will be able to make the cut to engineers and doctors, so at the primary level we must utilise the 'art of failure' to determine where their individual strengths are. This is where the country needs the intervention of vocational schools."

Security minister has to clear the air

A Gleaner story which stated the Commissioner Ellington was removed from his post because overseas funders of the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) had become disillusioned with his leadership in stemming extrajudicial killings is not holding up much water with the man at street level.

"Look how long police a kill man an' a plant gun pon dem an' a seh shoot-out," said one man to me recently. "Den a dat mek dem tek wey him visa?"

I told him that there was no hard confirmation on Ellington losing his visa, and also that maybe the overseas funders who pump significant sums in assisting the JCF had become fed up. "Maybe they needed to send a message to Ellington, but mainly to any other commissioner who came along," I said.

"No sah. Mi nuh believe dat. A something happen sudden or a something whey man an man a check pon from a longer time back," he said in response.

People's National Party (PNP) administrations tend to do a much better job of shrouding controversial developments than Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) governments because it is the nature of the PNP to be more united in attempting to secure its credibility and next win at the polls. In similar situations, the JLP tends to rip itself apart at the seams.

Security Minister Peter Bunting now needs more than divine intervention to get the Ellington removal story painted in a credible light. The rumours are flying every which way and many of them are unflattering. What is obvious is that the initial reasons given by Ellington -- maybe scripted in tandem with the security ministry -- have not 'taken' and cannot hold. The other reason, that Ellington has failed in controlling extrajudicial killings, seems to have been vetted by an embassy in Jamaica.

That, too, has not gripped the public as being credible. One woman on Thursday said to me, "If a di police killing, why the US no ask fah Mr Bunting fi leave fi him post? Why dem nuh tek weh fi him visa? Watch yah. Dem a hide something but dem can't fool wi too long."

Minister Bunting needs to go back to his office and consult with his best scriptwriters. And they need to secure the movie rights to the final production.

With the rumours that more visas are to be revoked, the times are reminiscent of the Dudus saga when visas were indeed revoked. The Americans are very much aware how much we treasure that precious document, whether one is minister of government or fledgling gunman.

I expect that either this weekend or early next week it will all come out in the wash.

— observemark@gmail.com

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