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Dumpling, Dumpling, Dumpling - Why we must change the Caribbean education system

Published:Sunday | January 24, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Ruel Reid, Contributor

My colleague Peter Espeut has inspired me to respond to his comments, 'Change the system', Gleaner, January 15 ) about the critique of the CXC exams by Education Minister Andrew Holness. As one who serves at so many levels of the education system and a master teacher, I would like to enter the debate.

I was proud to have attended the launch of the new initiative, Career Advancement Programme (CAP), by the minister, Mr Holness. Essentially, the principle involves extending the school-leaving age to 18 and adding two more grades to the system at grades 12 and 13.

According to Simon Sine, great leaders inspire everyone to take action by "starting with 'why'". So, let's ask, why do we have the current system of education? As Penwood High School principal, Austin Burrell, said in his remarks, "Why is it that there is so much change around us in technology and process re-engineering and we cannot make changes to our education system, too?". So we adopted the British elite system of education that started by limiting access. Examinations like O' and A' levels were designed as entrance exams to feed into the then Oxbridge universities. These exams were not criterion referenced. They were group-reference tests following the normal bell curve. This meant that it was set so that only a limited number of the population would qualify to obtain grades 'A' to 'C', but it was also at a time that the British economy did not require a large pool of certified workers. The world then was quite content with manual uncertified labour. However, this is the system that we have adopted in the British Caribbean.

Formal education

Further, traditionally, we felt that formal education should begin at age six or seven. Research has since shown the importance of early childhood development and learning stimulation as necessary for a child to develop the cognitive capacity for learning. Indeed, in these early years, the development of language takes place. A young child can be taught many different languages at ages three to eight. Before this knowledge, many of our colleagues in the Caribbean who did well under this system were the exceptional students. We still need to resolve how we transition students from their dialect background to Standard English.

So, after all these 30 years of CXC and the British model, in the 2009 results, for all the students in high schools, only 60 per cent sat any CXC exams across the participating countries. Only 25 per cent sat five or more subjects at any one time, while only 12.7 per cent received grades 1-111 in five or more subjects. This means that over 75 per cent of these Caribbean students did not achieve the desired standard. Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago all had less than 50 per cent of the students who sat these examinations gaining less than grade 111 certification in mathematics. The regional average for those who sat English language was 66 per cent, with Barbados gaining approximately 70 per cent.

This is not a Jamaican problem alone. This is a systemic problem. So, it is against this background that our minister of education must ask the question, why do we continue with this system? What must we do to fix it? The minister has a full grasp of the factors that go into the transformation of the education system.

The key elements involve resources, teacher training and effectiveness, curriculum review and rationalisation, effective early-childhood programme, and a literacy transition model to the secondary level. That is making sure that all students who are going on to the secondary system are prepared. It also includes redesigning the secondary education system, consistent with present international benchmarks. CXC or GCE are not the only examining bodies in the world. In fact, among the top Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, the British model gets the least students into the ter-tiary system. Most OECD countries extend their school-leaving age to grade 12 or 13 for all students. In Finland - the system is the model I much prefer - they have the lower secondary up to grade 11, and then they have the upper-secondary system. Students are assessed and streamed into programmes for which they are ready. Finland has the best- performing education system. Why not model them?

Our analysis of the current system is that we are using CSEC to certify students to enter tertiary institutions at age 16. Should that be the only purpose of the secondary system? What we should have is a synergistic curriculum that starts from early childhood to secondary, with appropriate scope and sequence. The education system and assessment examinations should be led by a curriculum, and not by an examination body. The flip side of this is that we have more students now than spaces for programmes such as law and medicine. Many more students are meeting the criteria, but because of limited access they can't get in. We have a space constraint. So we need universal secondary and universal tertiary with enough diversity to meet the needs of our students. We need a continuous-assessment paradigm and a lifelong-learning paradigm; different pathways for students to develop their full potential.

So, to adapt to this new-knowledge eco-nomy, we need to extend the educational experience of our students to age 18, and beyond, and prepare them for the world of work first, and for tertiary education. I have no problem if we want to let all students do the Caribbean Certificate of Secondary Level Competence (CCSLC) as a prerequisite for the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC). Equally, not all jobs require CSEC as an entry qualification. What is required from employers is that the worker is certified for the job that he is required to do. This is now the Finnish, Asian and Singaporean model. CCSLC, NVG, CVQ or City and Guilds are all alternatives to CSEC.

As under the GCE O' level system, not all students will achieve at the same pace at age 16. In fact, developmentally, more students would do better if they were sitting CSEC at age 18 or 19. Hence, when our students succeed in our system, they can go anywhere else in the world and do well. We need, through the CAP programme, to give all our students the opportunity to realise their dreams. I looked at the CXC website and it says grades 1-111 are acceptable for tertiary qualification, but grade IV should be acceptable for entry-level jobs. So why did we have the CXC basic exams?

Educational achievement

Sorry to disabuse us that CSEC English language is not a test of literacy. While I was at Munro College, as master teacher, the students who were in our grade 12 programme who did not get grades 1-111 in English at CSEC were allowed to sit the GCE English Language paper and they all obtained a grade 'A'. This was after we used CAPE Communication Studies and Caribbean Studies to improve their communication skills and self-confidence. For equity also, we have to introduce the school-based assessment for CSEC mathematics and English language.

I am looking forward to HEART establishing workforce colleges to give our students even more pathways to educational achievement and certification for the world of work.

Yes, let's ask, why? The minister is right - the way we have used CXC in the Caribbean needs revision. In the same way we transformed the tertiary sector to introduce course work and the semester system, we need also to revise the secondary system, or we will retain an elitist system and be perpetually left behind developmentally.

Equifinality - The same end but different pathways. Some can swallow a whole 'dumpling', but others could do so by cutting it into pieces and having one piece at a time. Let your hearts not be troubled, we are not saying do away with CXC.

Ruel Reid is chairman of the National Council on Education. Feedback may be sent to

Tashieka Mair/Freelance Photographer
Students of William Knibb Memorial High School in Trelawny take notes during day two of The Gleaner's Youthlink CSEC Seminar in Montego Bay, on Wednesday, April 12, 2006.