Wed | Apr 14, 2021

Editorial: Freeze school promotions in September

Published:Thursday | March 4, 2021 | 12:11 AM

WE DO not understand the hesitancy, because the suggestion is obviously logical and sensible. It should have been the starting point of the new school year last September. And it is what Fayval Williams, the education minister, should be planning towards for the next academic year.

That is, Minister Williams, her technocrats, and the Government must accept that the past year, with the disruption of schools because of the COVID-19 pandemic, has essentially been lost to education – and be treated as such. As we urged previously, the authorities must end the illusion that, if even there was some teaching, substantial learning has taken place.

The sensible thing, in the circumstance, would be to freeze school curricula at where they were in the 2019-2020 academic year, thus halting any automatic promotion of students to new classes. Syllabi should be repeated to allow children to catch up.

Or as Ronald Thwaites, the education minister between 2012 and early 2016, put it in his column in this newspaper on Monday: “The safest and most effective recourse, albeit the most far-reaching, is to accept the depth of the learning deficit, acknowledge the likelihood of the present peril continuing for the next few months, and plan to start back school in September from where they left off last March. In short, for most students, it will mean repeating the school year.”

RENEWED ATTENTION

This matter has gained renewed attention following the Government’s decision to again roll back its halting attempt at face-to-face, in-class teaching because of the latest surge in COVID-19 cases. Only grades 11 to 13 students – those preparing for the Caribbean Examinations Council’s (CXC), Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) examinations and the Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Examinations (CAPE) tests – are allowed to be in school.

Other students are supposed to be engaged in some form of distance learning, either by logging into virtual classes or tuning in to lessons delivered by either radio or television. It is common ground that this arrangement has not worked well, especially with respect to the digital classroom. It has highlighted the digital divide among Jamaicans starkly along economic lines.

By most estimates, more than half of students do not regularly log into their virtual classes, and perhaps no more than a third do so consistently. Those who are mostly out tend to be the children who live in urban, inner-city communities or poor rural ones.

They often do not have computers or smartphones with which to access classes, and when they do have the device, Internet connectivity may not be in their communities, or their families cannot afford to pay for it. Often, too, students in this category have parents in informal jobs, who have to go out daily to earn. Home supervision, including attention to lessons, may be lax.

Indeed, many parents have long depended on the structured environment of school to help cover the social deficits of their communities or at home, including the inability of many parents to help children with their lessons. Additionally, meals at school add to the nutritional well-being of many children.

A FREEZE ON SYLLABI

That is against the background which we have, and continue to support, a freeze on syllabi to allow students who have fallen behind – which, we have no doubt, is the vast majority – to catch up. It may indeed be the case that some students are capable of advancing to higher grades. They must be accommodated. That, however, must not be automatic. It should be on the basis of appropriate teacher assessment and consultation with parents.

The same thing, we believe, should happen with students who would normally be preparing for the CXC exams. They must be allowed to delay these tests for a year or two as they catch up on the education deficit because of the disruption of the school environment, as well as right any psychological disequilibrium caused by the pandemic. In this regard, the CXC should give consideration to the suggestion of Linvern Wright, the president of Jamaica’s Association of Principals and Vice-Principals, that rather than two exams a year, it holds a series of rolling tests to facilitate students when they are ready for exams.

These proposals, assuming that reasonable normality returns to Jamaica by the end of 2021, will probably mean the education system operating outside its norm for the next two or three years. But given Jamaica’s education deficit before this crisis, and its exponential worsening since then, it would be worth it. It would be an opportunity, too, for stakeholders, the Government, schools, teachers, parents and students to have a good, hard look at how we have gone about delivering education and what has been learned in this crisis to make it better.

Education Minister Williams should use the time between now and September to plan for changes and engage in a full and inclusive dialogue with parents and the society about their implementation.