Editorial | Calabar, standards and national consensus
The education authorities were right to rescind Calabar High's attempt to expel fourth-form boys for failing to achieve its declared grade for promotion to the next class. Nonetheless, the controversy has reprised a long-standing issue in Jamaica's school system that is in need of honest debate and clear resolution.
For while Calabar's less-than-deft handling of the matter caused the spotlight to be shining on that institution, it is the habit of Jamaican schools to screen out students who they believe might not do well in the Caribbean Examinations Council's Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) exams, which are usually written in fifth form, or grade 11.
What Calabar attempted to do was not only to weed them out early, at the end of grade 10, but to throw them out of the school altogether, without, it appears, references to its obligations and the rights of children under the Education Code.
To be fair to Calabar, we can make the case that there are hazy outlines of good intention. The leaders of the all-male school run by Baptists want to set minimum standards for education outcomes, which is a good thing. And they made some attempt to help bring lagging students up to those standards, including engaging the parents of the boys in the effort.
Apart from the legality of expulsion of students in the specific circumstances, there appear to be questions about timing, and perhaps arbitrariness, on the part of Calabar in the establishment of standards.
Last May, the school's principal, Albert Corcho, sent circulars to parents of prospective grade-11 students advising that their children, who were then in grade 10, must score "an average of no less than 60 per cent" in their end-of-year tests to be promoted to grade 11. "... There will be absolutely no repeating of grade 10," he said.
Students, Mr Corcho noted, had been "repeatedly" advised about the condition for promotion. It is not clear from the letters if parents had been. The same letter also told of some students, based on their performance during the first two terms, being preselected for "mandatory summer school", but that would have been after the term exams that might have determined their fate. What the letter doesn't make clear is how students were being tracked prior to grade 10 and how parents were involved.
Right of appeal
Excluding a student permanently from school is a serious matter, and ought not to be done lightly. In the event of such a decision being taken, it is expected to be at a hearing of the board, at which the parent or guardian is present. There is also the right of appeal to the minister of education.
Further, Section 30 (7) of the Education Code stipulates that "a student shall only be suspended or excluded from a public educational institution after other efforts have been made to effect an improvement in the conduct of the student". Clearly, the education ministry wasn't satisfied that Calabar adhered to these regulations or fully employed the principles of natural justice.
The broader issue, though, is the basis on which Calabar established the grade average for promotion, and if its 60 per cent is standard for all high schools approved by the education ministry. There is an obvious question, too, about the relationship between that grade which gets some students expelled and the 45 per cent established by the Inter-Secondary School Sports Association for students to participate in competitions. To which of these grades do Calabar's sporting students have to adhere?
By some estimates, up to a third of the students who enter high school at grade seven never make it to grade 11. Of those who arrive, about a fifth aren't sent up for CSEC, on the assumption that they are ill-prepared. The system has arrangements for students of varying abilities and different learning styles, but the application of these can't be arbitrary. Nor should they be invoked by expelling students at grade 10.