Ronald Thwaites | A new kind of school
The teachers from one of the summer schools we are sponsoring in Central Kingston came in distress on Friday. "So many of the high-school teenagers between 10 and 14 cannot read," they lamented. "It will be very difficult to offer them the additional maths and science classes we have planned."
At the colourful graduation of one of the large high schools nearby, a good half of the principal's report celebrated the effort required over five years to advance the majority of the graduating class, which had entered grade seven reading at grade-three or grade-four level, to appropriate literacy standards, so that by the time they were leaving, most could at least understand some of the expensive books they had bought but hardly read over the years.
Watch the video shown me by the chairman of a brand-name high school, with schoolboys mashing up and vandalising their own classroom, the penalty for which, under the effete Education Code, will be either the extended holiday of suspension or expulsion, which will only transfer the menace of their misbehaviour.
Then reflect on the hysteria of an aspiring leader of the teachers' union who now proposes the legitimacy of teachers carrying guns to class in their handbags!
These are not isolated instances. I join Edmund Bartlett in proposing serious discourse and action to remake our school system to be the prism of wholesome development rather than the manifestation of growing personal and social disorder.
While we console ourselves and rightly commend the slowly increasing numbers who graduate with matriculable outcomes, illiteracy and marginal literacy are the reality of a great part of our high-school system that we are papering over and refusing to correct, because it would require a revolution in our education system.
First, it will require an entire rethinking of the early-childhood project with a suitably trained teacher in every school, a complete nutritional programme, and concentration on comprehensive social and cultural adjustment of the little children.
The training, recruitment and reassignment of teachers to achieve this objective will require an overhaul of the education budget and a radical revision of the Education Code. Thus far, myopic vision, political cowardice, and bureaucratic resistance have prevented serious attention to both these necessities.
Next, the practice of promotion by age rather than by satisfactory achievement has to stop now. This is not to suggest that non-reading teens be kept with the little children in grade one as some seek to absurdly caricature the proposal. What it does mean is that a resolute effort be made to remediate underachievement before advancement rather than kicking the problem up the system as at present.
And I am now convinced that trying to teach in a language that many students do not understand, and cannot express themselves in fluently, will not work.
Every teen who is chronically late, absent or delinquent is vulnerable for academic and/or social failure, and all the approximately 3,000 dropouts each year are potential recruits for scammers and gangs. Supt Vendolyn Cameron-Powell of the Clarendon police will tell you that the gun-toting 'tiki-tiki' in lock-ups for serious crimes are delinquents from identifiable schools. Check the early-teen pregnant girls and the pattern is the same.
No one must drop out of school or show serious difficulty in attendance without being traced, remediated and readmitted to some type of training. There are enough social workers and guidance counsellors in the already-employed teaching force to make this mandatory now.
There are two measures that ought to be implemented this summer. First is the declaration of the entire country as a compulsory education zone to re-establish a national conviction that being out of school is a serious issue and to curb the higher than 20 per cent rate of absenteeism.
Then, extend to at least two weeks' duration, a comprehensive orientation programme for the entering students of all schools. Take time to get to know each child and his or her parents. Is the home situation conducive to adequate nutrition and the doing of homework? What are the personality, physical, economic or other challenges that may affect school life? Make sure to infuse the school culture and define expectations.
Much more can be done within existing resources to make sure that schooling creates the foundation for sustainable development. In previous writings, I have tried to suggest ways to deal with those feckless, idle and maladjusted who are already out of school. But this cohort will forever grow if the emphasis in school is more on remediation than on prevention.
It will take a new kind of school.
- Ronald Thwaites is member of parliament and opposition spokesman on education and training. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.