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Not 'bright' enough for a primary school?

Education Matters

Zoyah Kinkead-Clark

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

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There is a dangerous, yet largely ignored trend taking place in many of Jamaica's primary schools — the discriminatory practice of selecting children for enrolment based on their academic competencies. Admittedly, this is hardly new; private schools have been doing this for years. Arguably, they have the right to do this. We really don't invite people into our homes if we don't want them there.

My diametrical opposition to this is that government-funded schools are also employing this practice. These primary schools, which are funded by taxpayers' money, turn away taxpayers' children because of the children's presumed limited academic abilities.

This practice blatantly contravenes Regulation 23 (2) of the Education Act, 1980, which states that no person who is eligible for admission [to school] should be refused admission unless there is no space at the institution, or unless approved by the minister of education.

For some children (even as young as five and six years old), in order to have a chance to walk through a primary school's gate in September they are asked to complete an assessment to prove their worthiness of acceptability. For children who are not 'successful', or who do not pass the test are not granted a space and parents are left scrambling to find alternate — and in their eyes 'less desirable' — schools for their young ones.

Many questions can be asked about these tests. What exactly are the purposes of the assessments? How reliable are these assessments? What is the basis for the inclusion of items on the assessment? How legal/ethical are these grounds of discrimination/selection?

Forget Common Entrance, forget the Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT), and, yes, forget the Primary Exit Profile (PEP). There needs to be a conversation about the discriminatory practices taking place in many government-funded primary schools. Schools which seek to maintain and build their reputations by discriminating against children who cannot pass 'the test'.

In some instances, the expectations of these tests are unreasonable. Realistically speaking, some children have failed the test before they even put pencil to paper. Having had the opportunity to look at a few of the tests, it is clear that for the vast majority of children they are required to complete a test based on content they were unlikely to have been exposed to in basic or infant school.

Three-year-olds being pressured

Because learning is a developmental process, the Jamaica Early Childhood Curriculum does not require children to learn to read in basic school. For those children who have the ability to do so, they are encouraged. For the vast majority of children, however, teachers help them to develop the foundational skills which will provide the springboard to formally read when they enter grade one.

Since that the pressure to pass 'the test' has filtered its way into basic schools, early childhood institutions are increasingly forced to function as little academies. Here, children have little, if any time to play. To demonstrate their 'brightness', children are increasingly exposed to the 3Rs: read, recite, regurgitate. This, ultimately, has dire consequences because children lose out on the opportunity to develop critical thinking skills, social skills, and self-regulatory skills which are essential competencies needed to be successful in primary school.

Another issue resulting in highly pressuring early childhood classrooms is that, unlike in primary school, in which children have six years to prepare for their school exit exams, basic school children only have three years to prepare for what is effectively now their “primary school entrance test”.

Upon entry to basic school, teachers immediately start the preparation. Drawing on the seven or more textbooks (for three-year-olds) parents are required to purchase, teachers, especially those fortunate to have a copy of 'the test', quickly begin the drilling process, focusing solely on teaching children to pass the test. What this means is children as young as three years are required to deal with complex academic work they are developmentally unable to manage.

The true 'school test'

It is obvious this practice cannot continue. My questions to primary schools that employ such practices are:

• Why fear children who can't read?

• Can your teachers only teach children who are 'bright' already?

• Are schools not places for learning for everyone?

• If these schools are as good as they say they are, let them prove themselves. Are the reputations of these highly sought-after schools unwarranted?

Good school vs bad school

It is well known that not all schools are of the same calibre, not all teachers have similar strengths, and not all schools have access to the same resources. It is also a sad reality that many schools do not have the resources to adequately meet the needs of children with alternate learning needs. In one sense, as was explained by a primary school principal, is, “This [highly selective] practice is a protective measure for schools.”

Labels are given (good school vs bad school), lists are published (performing vs failing schools), and pictures of successful teachers are published in the media. No school wants to be seen in a negative light.

As advocates for children — which I believe all teachers are — despite all this, there must be the acceptance that children must never be discriminated against. Their shoulders are too small to bear the burden of school and societal expectations.

I fully understand the repercussions of what I am proposing. Accountability, equity and open access are not too much to ask for. Let us be fair. Yes, it is a fact that some schools have 500 children vying for the 200 spaces in grade one. Rather than employ questionable exclusionary practices in order to determine who is accepted, perhaps these schools can consider accepting children on a first come, first served basis.

This requires more than just thought, it demands action — for the sake of the children.

Dr Zoyah Kinkead-Clark is a lecturer and coordinator of early childhood programmes at The University of the West Indies, Mona. She is also manager for the Dudley Grant Early Childhood Resource Centre and project manager for the INSIGHTS in Jamaica Programme. Send comments to the Observer or zoyahkclark@hotmail.com.

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