I have read the comments of many of our esteemed educators as well as the general public on the need for educational reform in Trinidad and Tobago. Many of the arguments were cogent, but I am concerned that in many instances schooling was equated with education.

There are two other forms of learning that are gaining recognition in progressive societies. They are informal and non-formal education.

Informal education refers to incidental learning, and the socialisation process that takes place in the family and community, and of course the current craze, the social media. The impact of informal education is gaining ascendancy and greater relevance as it seeks to overtake the “real” or formal curriculum of schooling.

Non-formal education generally refers to organised learning that does not require formal assessment and certification. Examples of these are youth groups, sporting associations, voluntary civic organisation. Incidentally, some progressive educational systems have provided credits for such learning; cognitive, affective or otherwise, through what is commonly referred to as in-service learning or national service.

There has been some confusion by some regarding the concepts of equity and equality. Simply put, equity is about fairness and justice, while equality is about sameness. Politics and economics in many societies make equality illusionary; an ideal that in its processing continues to deny justice and fairness to the under-served and disadvantaged. This has led to bright minds like Mary Warnock to propose that equality should take into account difference and fittedness.

In other words, education policy should be guided not by equal as same but equal as fitting, equal as different. Only then would the problems of poverty, the problems of learning challenges, the problems of housing, and the problems of health be addressed. This fact has led to some political directorates pursuing affirmation that seeks to undo the inequity in the education system by recognising that equity cannot happen by default.

I am disappointed that our economists, health and housing experts have been silent at these consultations. Their role is pivotal. Since 2006, renowned experts as Berliner found that poverty, especially among urban youth, is associated with academic performance.

More recently, Brito and Noble (2014) and Jensen (2013) have found that academic achievement can be predicted by socio-economic status. They noted that children raised in poverty are more apt to experience emotional and social challenges, chronic stressors, and cognitive lags due to significant changes in areas related to memory and emotion.

Our economists must tell us at this time if there is entrenched poverty, and outline to us where it is happening in the country. Is the true figure 25 per cent below the poverty line? And has that figure grown since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic? What are the economic implications for the application of digital technology to a reformed education system? I believe any attempt by any government seeking to reform the education system must have at its base a more equitable distribution of its wealth and resources for the common good. How then can wealth be redistributed?

Our health experts should be making a strong case for early diagnostic testing for all our children in the age group zero-to-five years. Every child deserves a good start in a learning environment that is safe, healthy, emotionally supportive and cognitively stimulating. In that regard, a child who has a learning challenge or with social and emotional needs should be screened by age five for remedial intervention.

Our housing experts should be advocating for a housing policy that would dictate how our tenements and housing estates should be architecturally and acoustically designed with additional features that include health and wellness and the arts and sporting facilities.

And there should be the building of social capital through communicative action between the system and the cultural experiences “lifeworld” of the community (Habermas). Too many students in such learning cultures are distracted by noise, lack of space and sometimes mayhem.

In my opinion, that is the super structure upon which the system hinges; the ideational scaffolding that relates to differentiated curricula, high-stakes testing, a zoning principle, teacher professionalism, parent education in building a learning culture in the home, public schooling and government-assisted schools and the Concordat, the Teaching Service Commission, dissolution of the monolith that is the Ministry of Education are all relevant and important for the transformation of the education system, but unless the super structure exists, we will be constantly rewriting reports with selective items chosen to meet the needs of competing interests and powerbrokers. In essence, it calls for a multi-sectoral approach.

Maybe we all need facts. The Ministry of Education’s Research Unit, in collaboration with other ministries, should conduct a survey that would provide parent(s)’ education level, parental occupation, and a family stress model that explores how economic pressure experienced by parents is associated with hostility of children, child labour, truncated exposure to schooling and, most importantly, their children’s educational achievement.

The facts will set us all free.

Let me hasten to conclude that pressing issues cannot await the total eradication of poverty, but a government must recognise that some measure of affirmation may be necessary to undo the damage to scores of institutions and individuals that have normalised failure as it relates to schooling. Then too would a government recognise that public education is the great equaliser, and that there is value in strengthening and investing in school districts with the greatest need but have received the least resources.

Dr Lennox Bernard



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