Our education system should be more inclusive and equitable

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Dear Sir,
I READ with great interest, and general agreement, the suggestion by the Caribbean Development Bank’s (CDB) Director of Economics, Mr. Justin Ram, to scrap the National Grade Six Assessment (Demerara Wave July 6, 2019– Scrap Grade Six exam, improve access to good quality education– CDB Official). The idea that Guyana should do away with the Grade Six Assessment is not new. Now, it is beginning to look as if more people are giving it support. It is not as simple as that, but there seems to be increasing evidence, particularly in poor and underdeveloped countries, pointing to the need for an education system that caters to the needs and skills of all of the nation’s children; not just the few who are excelling in academic subjects. Support for this idea comes from research work and projects done by other countries with their school systems. Essentially, they have led to new ways of helping children to be more successful with their education. However, my agreement with the recommendation of Mr. Ram is largely influenced by two fundamental issues: our current system of education, and what happens to “underperformers”: It should be noted, though, that this is not a criticism of the current system but another way of looking at it.

The current system of education, particularly at the primary level, appears to be intensely focused on getting the children ready for Grade Six Assessment. Here is where the system separates the “achievers” from the “underperformers”. “Achievers”, those children who scored high marks based on certain indicators set by the system: “Underperformers”, the ones who demonstrated an inability to score according to the same set of indicators prescribed by the system. Yet, this very system does not cater to varying and various circumstances, at home, at school, and in local neighbourhoods, in which these children must spend their early childhood. Consequently, while the system appears to be fair, certain conditions undeniably put some children at a very serious disadvantage. For example, let us look at primary schools, in Georgetown. Some schools, particularly privately owned, are better equipped than others. In addition, they attract children whose parents pay fees thus sustaining the resources, name and development of those schools. Therefore, teachers employed at those schools have the facilities and means to do a better job with their children than those who teach in schools that are not properly resourced. In some cases, those schools not so resourced encourage teachers to reach into their purses or get involved in fund-raisers to get basic teaching aids to assist with the process.

Again, some primary schools are negatively labelled by individuals because they may be situated in vulnerable communities, or historically, they may not have gained spaces for their children at one of the top secondary schools. As a result, teachers and children begin with the daunting challenge to rise above that label. This is a serious point because such labels can and do shape the attitude of children to learning and education. Still, there may be many other problems facing children and schools that are underperforming. This brings to the fore the vital question of research to identify the right problems to solve.

This means diagnosing rather than assuming the problems of underperformance. For example, the nature of the student population, their norms, values and beliefs may require a change in the quality of instructions in the classroom, or family poverty, or other issues in family environments, which appear as part of a symptom of underperformance, may need to be actionably considered even as a surface feature of the deeper problem of underperformance. These must be taken together with the status of the capacities and competencies of teachers to provide the required quality of instructions to such disadvantaged children and to assist with their educational achievement.

Then, preparation for grade six assessment is done at the expense of the childhood of many of our children. Playing, interacting with the natural environment and doing fun things, which facilitate their early childhood development are sometimes pushed aside for the greater purpose of learning; some do not recognize that playing and interacting with the natural environment is also part of the learning process and experience. In the instances, children are forced to walk to school with numerous books, the costs of which set ordinary parents back thousands of dollars. Nevertheless, they make the sacrifice, without mummer because they want their children to be successful. Sometimes, they do it at the expense of providing good nutrition for their children and certain necessities for themselves.

What is quite astonishing is the sort of imbalance of the system to wit: much emphasis on academics; apparently, not much focus on other areas such as sports, music, dance, finances/money, and art. A child may not excel at Mathematics but is brilliant at sports, music, dance, art or some other physical skill. This is not to say that we should not work hard with them in these important areas of Mathematics, English and Science. But at that level (primary), the system tends not to cater to children with those skills in a way that would allow them to be properly recognized and to move up, perhaps, through scholarships or other arrangements. Some schools do not even have teachers in physical education, sports, music, dance or art. In so far as dance is concerned, it was a foremost creative activity that facilitated cultural resistance through the periods of slavery, colonialism, and even independence as an instrument of survival.

It facilitates imagination and mental strength. Also, art is really about cultural energies; it is the visual language by which we frame, shape and understand our world. Apart from the fact that Guyana needs to build its cultural infrastructure to compete with the rest of the Caribbean and the world, these skills are inescapably vital to the integrity of our multicultural environment and to allow us, as a nation, to, in the words of Arthur Lewis [West Indian Nobel laureate], contribute to the “common human heritage”. These skills should be encouraged at the primary level through to the secondary and colleges by scholarship programmes and/or other promotional incentives.

Again, we live in a global village where everything is down to the dollar. Yet, children are not being taught about money– management, investment and entrepreneurship. Yes, even at that age. Instead, they are taught to study hard, pass grade six assessment, get a good secondary school, get an education, and later apply for a good job in the private or public sector. It’s good advice but in reality, year after year, the system continues to produce hundreds of workers who are slaves to a system that keeps them at an average, restricting them from realizing their full potentials. This in turn, affects the development of our economy, our nation’s recognition and participation in the global economy, and the quality of life of our citizens. In this sense, the system appears to be ill-disposed to the quality of education that would build our nation.

Second, what happens to “underperformers” (schools and students that do not reflect certain indicators set by the system). I deliberately used uplifted commas, to highlight “underperformers” because in reality there are no underperformers; it is a construct that allows the system to negatively label our children and some schools as underperformers because they did not achieve the targets it set for them. But what if the system was balanced and cater to the skills, talents and abilities of all children at the primary level? What if the child with skills in music, sports or craft was given an opportunity to perform at appropriate assessments? Perhaps, we would have been reading different success stories, in the press, of many more children in our school system. Sadly, those children whose scores are below the required amount to gain entry at a top, middle or lower level secondary school continue their way without any recognition of their efforts. In some instances, they are frowned upon by their guardians and seen as inferior to those whose names appeared in the Top One Hundred List.

Beyond that, the system is robbing the country of much-needed skills and talents. Guyana, with its small population, could ill afford to allow a significant number of its children, who did not make it to top secondary schools but are possessed with other skills, to go unnoticed and unrecognized even at that early age. This country needs the contribution of all of its citizens to progress and prosper. Therefore, there should be strategies and policies that would include recognizing and promoting those children who [are] skilled and show great potentials in other fields. Our education system should be more inclusive and equitable to facilitate a more cohesive and progressive Guyanese society.

Regards
Royston King