A just society is inclusive. Years ago, the late Prof John Spence, who established T&T’s Education Discussion Group, of which I was chair for a number of years, said: “If indeed education is better in denominational schools, then we must ensure that government schools are brought up to the best level.” It is no use telling parents that they are the ones to blame for placing “stress” on the shoulders of their children writing the Secondary Entrance Assessment (SEA) exam, when they know that there is no level playing field in our education system. While the SEA is a placement exam, used to place students in secondary schools based on their abilities, parents, in particular, worry that if their children do not score sufficient marks to be placed in a school of their first choice, which is quite often a so-called “prestige” school, they may end up in a school where the quality of education leaves much to be desired.
Education is a partnership between parent, school, and community. We must do more to strengthen this partnership; to create conditions/places of high quality teaching and learning that will allow each child to realise his/her potential. Pope Francis stated: “Education cannot be neutral. It is either positive or negative; either it enriches or it impoverishes; either it enables a person to grow or it lessens, even corrupts him/her”.
In 2014, the US Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, rightly stated: “Education is the great equaliser—it should be used to level the playing field, not to grow inequality.” Is our education system enabling our children to grow; to be the best that they can be; to prepare them for life? Are we doing enough to level the playing field so that all students have access to quality education?
Catholic social teaching speaks about the principle of “integral human development”, that is, the development of every dimension of a person (intellectual, physical, spiritual, emotional, social) and of every person. Development has to be person-centred if we are to achieve our nation’s goals. Year after year we go through the same story with the SEA—euphoria for some and misery for many. Last year 2,595 students scored less than 30 per cent in the SEA. The Minister of Education and the ministry’s chief education officer stated on CNC3 that about 32 pupils less than last year’s figure scored less than 30 per cent. This means that 2,565 scored less than 30 per cent this year. Those who score under 30 per cent and are under 13 years old are not placed in secondary schools and some will repeat a year.
The revised syllabus contains a new assessment framework that was distributed to schools in 2017. Teachers were trained and students had 2 years to prepare for the exam which seeks to test e.g. their creative/reasoning/ critical thinking/ problem solving skills. Was this sufficient time to move from rote learning and regurgitating information to learn about/practice critical thinking which is an essential life skill?
Michigan State University Extension shares tips on helping children learn and practice critical thinking e.g. encourage pursuits of curiosity, learn from others, help children evaluate information, promote children’s interest, and teach problem-solving skills. We should introduce this life skill early in a child’s school life. This requires our schools to consider whether the teaching and learning processes as they currently exist, will facilitate the development of this skill in our students.
On another point, were you as disturbed as I was by the information shared at the recent sitting of Parliament’s Joint Select Committee on Human Rights?
Of the 3,735 school students who have special needs, only 1,756 of these have been referred to the Ministry of Education’s Student Support Services Division. CEO, Harrilal Seecharan, said many pupils are diagnosed late. Imagine, some pupils have waited up to nine years to be assessed before applying for SEA concessions. Three hundred students got special concessions.
Let’s hope that the plan to ensure that screening takes place from the point of the early childhood education centres and in primary schools becomes a reality soon. I believe in inclusive education and that special needs children should be in mainstream schools, but it is essential that adequate support is given to teachers to cater for their needs. OJTs alone will not cut it! And it is scandalous that since March 2018 special needs pupils are still waiting for their grants.
Time for the new type of grant to be distributed.