Friday, January 19, 2018

Deadly impetus for school reform

Theodore Lewis logo24

Mark Fraser

 It has taken the death of an innocent for us at least to talk about the need for reflection on the education system. As the family of Devindra Boodoo mourns,  searching for questions, having done all the society told them they should do to get their boy ready for the next stage of his education, out from the woodwork comes the Trinidad and Tobago Unified Teachers Association (TTUTA), the Minister of Education, the principals, all of them just like that, talking about the need for change, as though the issue is new. But when the mourning ends they will all go back to silence. They like it so.

For four years this minister has been talking about removing the Secondary Entrance Assessment (SEA) exam. But this is all carray and no bois. This same minister decreed that all extra-curricular aspects of the curriculum are to be delivered after school. He does not have a concept of a holistic curriculum, nor a vision of education for citizenship. As a man who is a medical doctor and who also made a Trinidad and Tobago 11 in cricket, he has a surprisingly conservative view of the curriculum. 

It is not just the minister. The churches are indicted on the count of actively participating in a system that lacks compassion for the multitude of children who come to school and who must take major exams starting a few feet behind the actual starting line. All of the attention is on the first choice children as though the rest of them are not our children too. It is not pure ability that causes most of the children who get their first choice to do well; it is the luck of the draw. 

I spent most of the last week at a conference in Bangalore, India, sponsored by Azim Premjie University, where much of the focus was on inequality in the Indian education system. One of the presenters, Prof Heredia, Fellow of the Indian Social Institute, New Delhi, said, eerily, and almost verbatim that “In India we train children for exams, and when they fail they commit suicide”. 

He went on to say that people cannot be held responsible for achievements or choices when it comes to education. Nor can they be held responsible for natural gifts or talents they have or don’t have. The role of governments, he said, was to strive to improve the condition of the poor. “We cannot have fair competition in education if we do not neutralise starting conditions. The concept of a meritocracy should not apply in education.”

In India, the concern is that many poor people are forced to expend their scarce resources to remove their children from public schools to private schools, just to try to get them the English-based, high status education that companies prefer. The concerns are compounded by the very recent ruling of the Supreme Court of India that the government cannot impose a language, including the mother tongue, as the medium of instruction for primary education. Scholars are aghast at this ruling. 

In Singapore, for example, instruction must be bilingual, students being exposed to both English and a native language. Anuraj Behar, vice chancellor of Azim Premjie University, said in opening the conference, that in India some 30 per cent of children are now attending private schools, a percentage he said that is one of the highest in the world, and is shameful because it places the country in the company of failed states.  

Indian scholars at the conference, for which one of the themes was social justice in education, felt that the state should have as one of its primary goals the levelling of the playing field so that children come to the starting line of schooling without advantages or disadvantages that accrue mainly by the chance of who their parents are. 

Children do not pick their parents, just as they do not pick their race or gender. They find themselves born, some of them in homes where no one has ever done well at secondary school, some with homes without fathers, or without surplus income that could be spent on educational materials.  In colonial times, these differences at birth were mapped onto schooling. 

When St Mary’s College and Queen’s Royal College were established in the 1860s, entry to them was on the basis of skin colour or privilege. Local children, like V S Naipaul, Eric Williams, CLR James and others, could attend these schools only by placing at the top in the College Exhibition. The elite  got to attend school by virtue of colour, the masses by winning an educational tournament. Even though we have schools for all now, we still keep the tournament, knowing that those with the requisite social capital will win. But the 1860s are long gone.  

(Concludes on Monday).

 • Theodore Lewis is professor emeritus, University of Minnesota. He has since returned home 

and is now mostly retired