Retooling secondary schoolingTuesday, March 09, 2021
In an era when we are seeking to erase all memories of colonialism, our education system, and more specifically the placement methodology, perpetually reminds and reinforces the 'Backra Massa' system. Indeed, nowhere else is the legacy of colonialism intertwined in the framework of the Jamaican society than the inequality in the education system. This, to my mind, is one of the fundamental causes for our economic and social problems.
Which Government will be courageous enough to put an end to this dual education system in which the general probability of success or failure in life is largely determined by the type of placement? I am remind of the sentiments expressed by renowned sociologist and environmentalist Peter Espeut, “We are poor because we plan for many of our citizens to be poor through this divisive structure of education.”
At the time of our first education loan from the World Bank, just after Independence, we had 41 grammar schools. Students had to pass the Common Entrance Examination (CEE) to enter them. There was no pass mark. The number who passed was determined by the number of available spaces. How was the World Bank loan used? Over 80 junior secondary schools were built. To enter these you had to fail the CEE. In other words, the then Government made provision for thousands of Jamaican children to fail the CEE by not making provision for them to pass.
We fast-forward 58 years and the approximately 39,000 students sitting Primary Exit Profile (PEP) examinations are vying for spaces in the same traditional high schools. Only approximately 8,000 spaces are available; therefore 80 per cent of the students are placed in non-traditional schools perceived to be for the less privileged. We then have a field day ranking schools and highlighting thousands of our administrators, teachers, and students as failures. This baffles the imagination and undermines the credibility of our education system.
What a difference it would have made if we had built even 50 more traditional high schools. The fact that researches and anecdotal data confirm the close correlation between poor academic performance and indiscipline magnifies the consequences of the inequity and injustice being meted out to our administrators, teachers and the vast majority of our students. Why, for example, should students travel from Trelawny, at great sacrifice, bypassing six high schools, to pursue their dreams at Manchester High, de Carteret College or Bishop Gibson High School in Mandeville? The question and scenario are similar for other traditional high schools across the country.
We stand on the threshold of one of the most pivotal points in our educational journey. The novel coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated and laid bare the inequities in our education system. Together we can begin to rid the system of this colonial baggage.
The pandemic we are now experiencing has exposed the absurdity of the way we have been placing students in our schools. If students attended schools close to their homes it would be much easier to re-engage them into schooling system at the present time. Transport to and from school would involve less exposure to the public and limit the movement of young people between different regions of the country.
Our placement system at the secondary level evolved from the historical circumstances in which our traditional high schools developed. These schools initially provided education to the sons of “freed men” and the brown or poor white students who could not afford to go abroad, like the children of the plantocracy, to be educated. They were private schools which admitted students on the basis of separate entrance examinations administered by each school. As the demand increased, these tests were used to screen out weaker students to in the Senior Cambridge Exams and build the reputations of the school in the eyes of the public and potential customers.
Limited government subsidy existed in the form of 'free places' and scholarships awarded to talented students. The introduction of the 'Common Entrance' expanded dramatically the accessibility of the middle- and working-class students to these schools. The initiative of the 60 per cent rule during the 1960s further expanded access to a wider cohort of students from lower-income groups. Even after attempts of offering free education was introduced and all high schools became de facto public schools, the placement system remained essentially the same, based on the results of an examination. Assessment was used for placement, rather than for learning. Each school had a cut-off point below which students tended to be rejected. This has been justified on the basis that it promotes a culture of meritocracy by which the better performers earned admission to more prestigious system.
This claim that the system promotes a culture of meritocracy is largely based on a false perception in the public mind that the good examination results necessarily reflect the quality of pedagogy in the schools that get them. But even if we make this assumption, it raises the question as to why we should send the better students to the better schools and the weaker students to the so-called inferior schools. The best students are the easiest to teach, and it is the weaker students who require more experienced and capable teachers.
What the system actually promotes is an undesirable type of elitism based on self-fulfilling prophecy. Schools that get the best results end up attracting the best pupils and teachers; hence, continue to get the best results. These pupils tend to have a higher proportion of parents from the middle and upper middle class who have contacts and influence with corporate entities from whom they can access assistance to develop and improve the physical plant and infrastructure of the schools. The schools regarded as being inferior find it far more difficult to obtain resources in this way.
To develop a culture of meritocracy it needs to be promoted in each school. When students are placed according to where they live each school will receive students of a wide range of abilities. The students in each school can be streamed according to ability and performance to enable leaders to plan lessons more effectively by designing them to meet the ability of each group. In fact, the system should be such that a national assessment test should be taken after the students are placed, for example, to allow each school to develop suitable strategies for the incoming cohort.
It should be noted here that there is nothing necessarily wrong with elitism in education. However, an elite school or class should have an elite programme. It makes no sense placing all the gifted students in one school or class to do the same programme of study in the same time as is done in other groups. Gifted students who do not require the same number of contact hours to cover the curriculum should be placed together in one class if they can use the extra time available to take up more subjects. This is done in many schools where good mathematics students are placed in one pool and allowed to take additional mathematics along with Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate mathematics.
Some new secondary schools on the shift system have allowed outstanding students to attend classes on both shifts so that they can take up additional subjects. The results of these students tend to be comparable to the best results at the traditional high schools, and there is really no evidence that they would have done any better at those schools. Like the students at the top-performing schools these students tend to have strong support systems in place at home, which better ensures that their time is supervised and their performance is monitored.
Such students do well anywhere they are placed. Even when a school has a temporary problem in finding a suitable teacher in a particular area, their support system is such that the required help is found. Furthermore, in the age of the Internet, there is no need to move children to go all over the place to get good pedagogy. The best teachers can be brought to all students online. This is, in fact, the direction in which we should go.
In such a system there is no reason to send student long distances from their homes to watch classes delivered online. Remote learning is the way of the future. But it is naïve to believe that it will work without being supplemented by face-to-face engagement with teachers.
Classes from the best teachers anywhere in the world can be delivered online to schools anywhere. The system should be organised to take advantage of this. All teachers at each school would still be required to engage tutorship while simultaneously improving their skills and competencies in learning from the best.
Still, the delivery of a lesson in the classroom or online is only one-half of the learning process. It is in the reinforcement of the ideas that the other half of the process takes place when students are engaged in applying abstract principles in concrete ways.
We need to use this present crisis to restructure our education system to make it more student-friendly for the average and below average student. At present, almost all of our schools do a good job with “bright” students of above average intelligence who have a reasonable support system at home. In fact, even those without strong support systems tend to be identified when they are talented. The private sector is quick to respond to natural talent. It is the average and below average students who are marginalised by our system which concentrates on developing clusters of excellence.
The argument against zoning our schools for placement when it has been put forward over the years has been that it will remove the right of parents to choose the school which their children attend. However, what percentages of these students really have a choice? After the parents of the top 20 or 30 per cent get their choice the rest have to accept the placement determined by the Ministry of Education. Since the choice is going to be limited anyway, it is best that it is limited for everyone by the Ministry to a small number of schools near to communities in which they live.
It is often said that we need a paradigm shift in education. This means that we have to try getting people to think about schooling and school in a different way. At present, most people believe that there is some vast difference in education delivered in the so-called traditional high schools by teachers who, for the most part, attended the same teachers' colleges and universities. The same data we use to rank schools will show that there are, in every school, a number of students who perform at the highest level alongside those from the top traditional schools. Some schools have more high-achieving students than others. But what is clear is that these schools are of a high enough standard for the intelligent, well-prepared student with a strong support system to perform with excellence.
By placing students in schools near to home we will make it easier for schools to monitor the support system provided by parents, and for parents to hold schools accountable for the education of their children. Any screening or streaming should be left to the individual schools after they have been placed. We need our brightest and best for leadership. This is better nurtured where there is a wide range of academic abilities. Placement as well as assessment in education should be done to facilitate learning.
It will be difficult to implement this policy by legislation in a short period of time. In future discussions I will propose how the policy can be introduced gradually and implemented over the short to medium term.
Jasford Gabriel is president of the Jamaica Teachers' Association and principal of Manchester High School.
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