Martin Henry, Contributor
Spookie, alias of Stanlie Parkins, did it for me decades ago. The 87-year-old St Andrew High School for Girls will not do it for its students. The school's handbook, with its commandments from Mount St Andrew, forbids it. All students must sit the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) only in the final year, grade 11. And that is that.
As a fourth-former in what was then the newest traditional high school in the country, I discovered that I was registered for English and history in the GCE examinations. I was in a panic at the discovery. How was I going to tell my poor mother already struggling to keep me in school that, quite unexpectedly and without any warning whatsoever, she owed examination fees?
As it turned out, she didn't owe a penny. Morant Bay High was betting on one of its good students for early examinations in two subjects in which there had been consistent high performance. Mr Steele, the English master, who was from England in those days of volunteer teachers from the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada, had quietly expressed the view that the language exam could be passed in third form. The student delivered on the school's vote of confidence: English, distinction; history, credit. The rest is history.
No girl at St Andrew High can now do that. Meanwhile, Penwood High School, an upgraded high school in one of Kingston's tougher neighbourhoods, has an advertisement out celebrating the success of some of its third-form students in the 'tough' subject, mathematics, which is now the subject of performance angst across the nation.
While there are many girls in grade seven at St Andrew High who can get ones in CSEC if they were allowed to take the exams, "proud mom and dad, grandparents and sister" have taken out their own ad congratulating Kearah Chaplin, an 11-year-old student of Paradise Prep School, who has aced CSEC social studies. While students are being forced to resit, in grade 11, CSEC subjects they have already passed, Tchakamau Ra juggled Immaculate High and home-schooling and delivered 16 CSEC passes, with 15 distinctions.
But according to St Andrew High principal Sharon Reid, "For us, education is not about getting 10 ones in CXC." The Caribbean Examinations Council should sit up and take note. Its examinations were deliberately designed, using the best available principles of education, to test broad profiles of not only knowledge but skills and attitudes and those profiles are reported with the grade. If chalking up 10 ones, or even five including English and mathematics, does not represent achieving a good secondary education, what does?
But the Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC) is part of the grand conspiracy to deliver drip education tied to age. When I ran the Priory Adult College of Education years ago, I distinctly preferred for students to sit Caribbean examinations, but we had to settle for the old British GCE. School-based assessments which were rigidly designed for two years. My adult students were in an accelerated learning programme doing one-year courses to catch up on their exam passes, typically for matriculation into tertiary education.
CXC would not budge. I was running a business, not a nursery. Students took - and passed - the GCE, which didn't care how they had acquired their competence demonstrated in the exams.
Apart from the thrill of it, young Kearah Chaplin has simply wasted her time acing CSEC social studies at age 11, worse if a brand-name school like St Andrew High is her first choice for high school. No matter how qualified she is, the public universities won't accept her before the magic age of 17. At least that used to be the case and explicitly stated by the University of the West Indies in its entry regulations. If things have changed, I'm certain their PR machine will let me have it in a moment.
On what basis do we judge a child who has managed to (over)qualify for university matriculation before the age of 17 to be unready in any fashion for tertiary education? We cater for handicapped students. What's the insurmountable difficulty in catering for precociously brilliant children in tertiary education who may need more of some kind of care than a young adult?Despite the handbook-guided lofty protestations by the leadership of one of our leading high schools, there is nothing pedagogically defensible about holding back bright students so that the school can 'educate' them. And, fiscal imprudence aside, forcing students to resit exams passed externally before grade 11 is just plain unethical. No school has any such lawful authority.
Some schools have relented somewhat on the resit 'requirement', but still insist that the affected students attend the redundant classes. Students typically do a dozen or more subjects up to grade nine. Bumping some of these off in external exams in grade 10 offers a golden opportunity to pick up others and leave school with double-digit passes and an even better education. Except for the terrible lock-stepping which schools, aided and abetted by CXC, impose upon students who want to get on and can get on.
Thankfully, the Ministry of Education (MOE) is on top of the matter of at least the enforced resits, and schools have been "instructed" to desist from the practice. But it should be protesting parents who should push for schools adhering to the MOE directive.
CLEAR POSITION NEEDED
St Andrew High principal Sharon Reid is also the president of the Jamaica Association of Principals of Secondary Schools (JAPSS). The executive of JAPSS, perhaps with the president recused, owes the country a position statement on drip education.
Media, particularly print, have been plastered with the stories of CSEC high performers. Schools are running their own performance advertisements. And we should celebrate these top students without downplaying the dismal statistics of poor performance. The declines in English and math scores this year have captured public attention and have the Ministry of Education in bouts of anguish and depression. English has declined from a pass rate of just about 64 per cent last year to just over 46 per cent this year, as if 64 per cent passes is anything to shout about. Math, the disaster, has fallen by one and a half percentage points from all of 33.2 per cent passing in 2011 to 31.7 per cent this year.
The largely untold story is that some 20,000 of the cohort of around 50,000 grade 11 students do not even get the chance to fail English and math. They are not entered for CSEC at all. Of those entered, only around 12,000, or about 37 per cent, muster any five subjects; and only 17 per cent or so pass five subjects with English and math included. At best, the double-digit passers so lavishly celebrated are only a few hundred students. The higher pass rates in other subjects, including, strangely enough, math-based subjects like physics, are due to a ruthless screening out of the incompetent, with far fewer students taking these subjects than the compulsory English and math.
MASSIVE EDUCATION CRISIS
It is perfectly safe to say, based on the numbers, that some 90 per cent of every grade 11 cohort is wasted, if passing five CXC subjects, including math and English, is a fair measure of minimum success. This country has a massive education crisis. Teacher (in)competence has come up in the national angst analysis of math failure. The problem is far deeper and more widespread. It is the weakest CSEC successes, often after multiple sittings, who opt for teacher education and end up strong on the gloss of 'education' but weak on content. Good teachers must be real experts in what they teach, like any other expert in what they do.
On the other hand, student readiness and willingness to engage learning, foundational weaknesses flowing through the system, school discipline, and family support are critical other factors in the weak performance of the Jamaican education system. The natural stars are shining despite everything and are often more hindered, than assisted, by their schools - traditional and brand name, or otherwise.
Henry is a communication specialist. Email feedback to
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