By Orville Higgins
Odean Skeen's absence from the upcoming Boys and Girls Athletic Championships has brought into sharp focus an issue that has been occupying my mind for quite a while.
Skeen will miss Champs because he was unable to satisfy ISSA's academic requirement of at least four CSEC subjects. Others up to fifth form are barred if they don't attain a 45 per cent average.
At the outset, that ISSA criteria had gained widespread approval from members of the public who felt that too many of our youngsters who were involved in sports were just going to school and skylarking in the classroom.
I understand why the rule came about. I agree that too many students were coming to school merely to take part in sports, and something had to be done to prevent this.
The time has come, however, to revisit this rule. In the days of Common Entrance, those who were not of a certain academic standard would not gain automatic qualification to high school. Common Entrance had its negatives, one of which was to create a stigma that those who didn't pass it were dunces, but it ensured that, generally, those who went through the walls of a high school were competent enough to handle the high-school curriculum.
Common Entrance has been replaced by the Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT), which is not so much a pass-or-fail test, but a method to sift out which youngster goes to which high school. It is accepted that the ones with good grades will go to the traditional high schools, while others who don't do as well will go to the newly converted high schools.
FISH OUT OF WATER
What this has done is drastically lower the standard for those who go to high schools now, as opposed to, say, 30 years ago. I have spoken to several educators about this and they all agree that some of those students transitioning from GSAT to high school will struggle. From the outset, many students found it difficult to cope with basic communication skills, which is one of the things that GSAT seeks to test.
In other words, many of those sitting GSAT and going into high school are functionally illiterate. They may be able to call words, but they can't really read with comprehension. It is my belief that a student who has difficulty understanding and writing the English language at a reasonable level is at a severe disadvantage in high school, and is unlikely to do well.
Asking these students to get 45 per cent in four subjects may be akin to asking a blind man to drive! I am a trained teacher, for roughly 20 years, and I have been teaching on and off at several high schools in Jamaica. Some students who sit before me know, well in advance, that they will never be able to pass my subject. (I teach English language and English literature). Many of them lack that ability to comprehend the written word above a very basic level.
Asking such students to achieve 45 per cent in my class is sometimes unrealistic. Sometimes I feel a major sense of achievement if they improve from 20 to 30 per cent. If they struggle with the written word in an English class, chances are they will struggle in all subjects which places a premium on them reading. The youth who can't read well will do badly in virtually all subjects, except the technical ones.
The 45 per cent rule was brought in to ensure that students don't form the fool once they get into high school. The truth is that some of them are trying and just find it impossible to do better, because of their reading deficiency. For these students, the 45 per cent rule is unfair. They are being punished for essentially a fault of the system - going all the way back to basic and primary school - and a less-than-ideal home environment.
Generally, it is the home (not school) that first engenders the habit of reading, and the youngster who isn't lucky enough to have a home that encourages reading and wholesome education, more broadly, will go to primary school and find reading a challenge. This can hamper his or her entire academic future.
My suggestion to ISSA is that rather than using numbers to determine eligibility for those who can compete in sports and those who can't, they should use the youngsters' attitude and attendance record. If he attends classes regularly and is generally considered to be making an effort, preventing him from representing his school is not only unfair, but can be downright cruel. ISSA needs to look at this rule again.
Orville Higgins is a sportscaster and talk-show host. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.