The reasons given by Education Minister Anthony Garcia for persisting with the Secondary Entrance Assessment (SEA) examination sounds very much like an excuse for doing nothing.
If, in the face of widespread criticism and public complaints about the exam, he insists that the ministry is acting on the basis of stakeholder support for the exam, then the least he should do is provide the evidence. Who are these stakeholders? What were they asked? Exactly what were their responses? If the ministry is basing its decision on surveys among primary and secondary schools pupils and parents, then it must present the evidence. It is not enough to say that 92.4 per cent of the pupils and 65 per cent of parents agree with the SEA model. One is left to wonder what options were presented to the children and their parents. Surely, Minister Garcia does not expect the public to just take his word without presenting the actual survey, complete with details about the methodology and findings.
In any case, the entire manner in which the ministry has arrived at its decision is highly questionable. The SEA exam is not a general election in which final decisions are based on purely quantitative criteria. Children and parents of children who are already in the SEA system, although unhappy with it, may simply be fearful of the impact on their children of changing a system mid-stream. In any case, by the time the process moves from planning to implementation, those children may have long graduated out of the SEA.
When it comes to the education system, as with the health system or any other public institution, stakeholders are not just the persons employed by the system or who are being served by the system at any given point in time; stakeholders are the totality of interests in the nation. Minister Garcia’s point of entry into the public debate about the SEA exam, which is essentially at the level of what a particular group of parents, pupils and teachers want, completely avoids the challenge of designing a system that works in the best interest of our children’s education.
This matter requires significant pedagogical and child development expertise in the context of clear educational objectives. It is evident from the statements of the Education Ministry officials at Tuesday’s media conference that the ministry does not feel equipped to address the challenge of change, which would explain why it has settled for generalised “stakeholder consultations” and “surveys”.
Both Chief Education Officer Harrilal Seecharan and Permanent Secretary Lenor Baptiste-Simmons alluded to the challenges. Mr Seecharan spoke about the cost and operational challenges involved in ongoing assessment while Ms Baptiste-Simmons was excited about the Finland model where seven-year-olds begin a nine-year compulsory basic education at comprehensive schools for which there are no academic or aptitude assessments. Particularly telling was her comment that while all schools in Finland are considered to be quality schools, this is not the case in T&T.
By persisting with SEA on the stated grounds, Minister Garcia and education officials are guaranteeing not just the retention of the status quo but continued erosion of quality in our schools.