“Whoever took his life has to pay and they will pay very soon.”
Those were the words of a man said to be like a grandfather to nine-year-old Cyon Paul during his funeral yesterday.
Last week, the series Injustice in Education began with a look at Alta and the Finland education system model. Part Two takes a closer look at T&T schools. Compared with Finland’s culture of co-operative teaching and learning, here the teacher works alone all day, every day. Isolation is the enemy of improvement and innovation.
Unlike Finland, where there was policy continuity for more than 40 years and educators made the decisions, here curriculum and policy change at the whim of the politicians in power. Schools have been a political football—key decisions taken to win votes at elections. It was at a political meeting that Basdeo Panday announced universal secondary education and the abolition of the Common Entrance Exam—a disastrous decision that placed hundreds of non-readers in secondary schools. Students who had not mastered the primary curriculum were expected to do a secondary curriculum.
In the 13 years since, non-readers continue to move from primary to secondary schools, where they are promoted every year and then out after Form Five—if they endure the humiliation that long. Alta has designed a foundation pre-Form One year where half the timetable is devoted to literacy. A logical step considering they spend five years having to read and write. Our proposal is languishing somewhere in the Ministry of Education. Alta may meet these “graduates” in their 30s or 40s if they ever come to Alta.
While Finland and Alta have no formal tests, students here have lots of tests with the king of all tests at age 11, the SEA—the “abolished” Common Entrance re-branded. The added national tests designed to evaluate how schools are performing have become another reason for after-school lessons in big groups. The same instructions that missed the mark during the hours when the students were not tired, hot and hungry are repeated. No continuous assessment.
Since all children have to compete for a few places in “good” schools, the school system engenders a culture of extreme competition, followed by resistance from those who fail early on. A visit to most secondary schools is a lesson in Gandhian non-cooperation, eg bell rings at 8 am, no one even begins to move towards a classroom until at least five minutes later. Then there is the violence. In part this is an expression of the non-readers’ extreme frustration and sense of futility, as they are bombarded by print at every turn.
It is worth noting that the TT school system does serve those who have an aptitude for literacy, and it serves them well. Testimony to this is the accolades many of our graduates receive when they go to study abroad. At the top level, we can compete in the international arena. This is because SEA selects all with excellent literacy skills and groups them together in the schools with strong traditions and a history of academic excellence. Once in this competitive environment among high performing peers, high expectations coupled with motivated staff, drive them to fulfil their potential.
It is interesting too that after the concordat in 1960, the top private fee-paying schools could be accessed based on academic achievement—not money, which was a move towards a fairer system. If public perceptions are correct, corruption has skewed this somewhat allowing those with power to get their children into top schools. This, and because every year some children from poor families do get a good school, have entrenched the system.
The downside of this merit system is that all primary school students have to do the curriculum designed for the few academically gifted. This leaves the vast majority not only behind, but with no hope of catch up even if they started learning to read at the developmentally ill-advised age of two or three; no hope even if they attend years of after-school lessons.
Let’s take a quick look at special needs. The only government special school I know of is Wharton Patrick and despite years of rhetoric about mainstreaming special needs, no posts have been created for the specialist support teachers needed. Provision is by NGOs and private effort: Autism Society, Dyslexia Association, Eshe’s, Blind School, Deaf School, Lady Hochoy Home, Centre for Persons with Disabilities—all struggling to serve rapidly growing populations. At Alta, we see the results of this inadequate provision. Non-reading adults with special needs come to Alta to learn to read, but our volunteer tutors are not equipped to meet their challenges. When we look for somewhere to refer them to, we find nothing. Those who suffer the most injustice in our education system are those with disabilities and special needs.
People often ask how much subvention Alta gets from government. From one year to the next, the answer to this question does not change: Alta gets zero dollars. I have come to see that this lack of government interest in Alta works to our advantage. I may be wrong, but no politician has ever declared policy on adult literacy in T&T. Indeed, it is probably government’s indifference that has allowed Alta to be so innovative. Alta is free to run a national adult literacy programme without political interference, and as Finland has shown, this is the key to success in education.
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