Theodore Lewis

Professor Theodore Lewis

Before I deal with comments made by former chief education officer of the Ministry of Education, Harrilal Seecharan, let me reflect briefly on what commentators Doug Lederman and Paul Fain had to say about President Obama in a January 19, 2017, article about his education legacy.

They wrote: “As President Obama’s eight years in office near an end, history is likely to remember him as the higher education president.”

Obama’s signature intervention was the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). This law makes provisions that will help to ensure success for pupils and schools. It requires that all pupils in America be taught to high academic standards that will prepare them to succeed in college and careers.

While I am at it, I think its also opportune to show that this liberal spirit regarding education can be seen here in the Caribbean, in the attitude of Prime Minister Mia Mottley, who said “the 11-plus was placing students as early as ten years old on a ‘dump heap’ as though they do not now have a full life to live”. She said it is too early to determine a child’s outcome.

Now, in last Friday’s Newsday, Mr Seecharan is reported to have said at the consultation on education that “an average of 14,000 students who sit the annual Secondary Entrance Assessment (SEA) exam are left dissatisfied and unhappy because of the stiff competition for the 4,500 spaces in the top-performing schools which are beyond their reach”.

Let us take this more slowly to see if we can digest it. Mr Seecharan is telling us here that 75 per cent of the children who sit the SEA each year will not only be unhappy with the outcome of the exam, but that a place in a top school would be “beyond their reach”.

This comment is devastating and revealing in the extent to which it shows the SEA to be a trigger for massive human wastage. It also provides us insight into the callous thoughts and dispositions of the man who, until recently, and across the tenures of Tim Gopeesingh and Anthony Garcia, was the technocrat who oversaw the SEA. You have someone who was one of the highest technocrats in the ministry being so backward on humanistic criteria, calmly dismissing three-quarters of a school cohort as wastage.

But hear Mia Mottley, by contrast: “We have to create an educational system that makes every school a top school!... There is no doubt in my mind that what we are facing is people who have been ignored and discarded, and for whom there has not been sufficient attention. Everybody has a talent. Every single human being has a talent. Every child has a talent, and we are discarding too many and we are paying the price...”

Locally, our Anthem states plainly that every creed and race must find an equal place. The Education Act is a distinct chapter (39.01) of the Laws of Trinidad and Tobago. Under the head “Compulsory Education”, at item 5, it states: “Education is guaranteed at any age between five and 16 years and accordingly a person shall be deemed to be of compulsory school age if he has attained the age of five years and has not attained the age of 16 years”.

So, the Constitution specifies that each child should receive continuous education from age five to 16. But the State interrupts this education at about age 12 and, in violation of the Constitution, compels children to compete for what is already their right in law—the right to schooling up to age 16 on the same footing as other children. Dr Kirk Meighoo and others, including Harrilal Seecharan, wrongly interpret the Constitution as requiring contest between children for the right to a good secondary school place.

The right to attend an excellent school at age 12 is enshrined in our Constitution. There is nothing in the law suggesting that merit is a basis for attending a good secondary school. Attending good schools is a democratic right. Children do not have to perform well on tests to earn a good secondary school place.

Section 4 of the Constitution sets out the fundamental human rights and freedoms “that have existed and shall continue to exist” in Trinidad and Tobago. One of those rights, at Section 4(f), is “the right of a parent or guardian to provide a school of his own choice for the education of his child or ward”. As to what is of importance when we consider the question of sending children off to secondary school, Section 7 of the Education Act (Ch 39.01 of the Laws of Trinidad and Tobago), which deals with “Prohibition of Discrimination”, states the following: “No person shall be refused admission to any public school on account of the religious persuasion, race, social status, or language of such person or of his parent.”

The Ministry of Education violates the Constitution each year by staging academic contests as a way to ration the best school places.

The Ministry of Education has long removed itself from the business of providing high-quality education at State-run primary and secondary schools, and has left children from depressed communities, where black people predominate, to fend for themselves. The result is that excellent Government primary and secondary schools are scarce in the country, even as the denominations turn their backs on these children. Across Port of Spain, denominational schools are failing. They have poor exam results. No children from these communities are making their way to academic podiums. Laventille children cannot be found at St Mary’s or Fatima. Or the convents. Harrilal Seecharan is now retired, but he has returned to the limelight one more time to remind the multitude, 75 per cent of a cohort, that prestige schooling really is not for them, and in any case is out of their reach. Prestige schooling is for the remaining 25 per cent.

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