Our children deserve better than GSAT's stress
A letter to the Editor from 11-year-old grade six student Roshaun Robinson published last Friday should be required reading.
A gifted writer, Roshaun loves to read. She is exploring Charles Dickens and Jane Austen and has tuned in to the harsh realities of the enslavement of Africans in the Americas via the modern classic, Book of Negroes, written by Canadian Mr Lawrence Hill.
But Roshaun tells us that since September she has not been able to indulge her love of reading because of the pressure of preparing for the Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT) which takes place tomorrow and Friday.
She is a prize-winning essay writer but is unable to fully indulge what should surely be a highly recommended pastime because of GSAT preparations.
Roshaun complains that with the approach of GSAT her school week has been extended from five days to six, and on Sundays she goes to church and does additional homework and study.
It gets worse, for in Roshaun's own words: "Some of my schoolmates have it even harder because after leaving extra lessons at school, their parents take them to other teachers for 'extra, extra' lessons. So some children get home only at night and then they have to do homework for classes the next day. Is there something wrong with a system like this? I think so.
"I love to learn, but now learning feels like a chore. GSAT is the focus. I eat, sleep and breathe GSAT. It has the power to make us winners or losers. I want to be a winner. We are constantly under pressure to do better because no one wants to go to an all-age school... We have headaches, stomach cramps and bellyaches. We find it difficult to sleep. We are anxious, cry easily, break down when our grades are not in the 90s, and we get irritable. Some children cannot keep up with the pace... Some children do not bother to try anymore..."
Truth is, adult Jamaicans have known about this unreasonable pressure for a very long time. Many of us experienced it as children. We have even heard of horrible situations involving suicide. Experts tell us that children who have been through such pressure could end up suffering "burnout" and a loss of interest in academics in later life.
Ironically, that unreasonable pressure was among the main reasons the GSAT was introduced to replace the Common Entrance Examination.
As this newspaper understands it, GSAT is based completely on work that students do daily in schools and, as originally envisioned by the Ministry of Education, should not have involved "special preparation" such as "extra lessons".
It's well established that part of the reason for the pressure on students is the "big school" mentality, with parents and teachers pushing for the 90-plus per cent marks that will get their charges into the most-respected 'traditional' high schools.
There is much to be said for meritocracy, but the deeply felt pain so articulately expressed by Roshaun suggests that we are taking the wrong approach.
There is also the suspicion that the motive for extra lessons goes beyond the welfare of children. Many parents believe teachers have made an industry of extra lessons.
What's to be done? There is the long-standing and controversial suggestion that instead of students being placed in schools on the basis of marks, they should simply be placed in the high schools closest to them. By that one stroke much of the pressure now being placed on our young ones would be removed.
We know that such a move would not go down well with many parents.
However, the other advantage to geographical zoning is that the current problem of children having to travel many miles to school daily — sometimes across parishes — could be brought to an end.
It seems to this newspaper that the society needs to honestly and frankly explore these issues and find a way forward in the best interest of our children. Minister of education Ronnie Thwaites and his staff should lead the way.