Sunday, February 25, 2018

Deadly impetus for school reform

The first part of this article was published in last Saturday’s Express

Theodore Lewis logo25

Mark Fraser

Here we are in 2014, and the education system, with infinitely more secondary schools than in the 1860s, is still apportioning places on 1860s criteria of privilege. The effect is still to reward circumstances of birth.  A child born in Beetham or Laventille, or on the train line in Marabella, cannot easily compete in this game with a child born in Valsayn, or Preysal, or Palmiste, or Westmoorings. The priests and pundits and imams are first in line, picking their winners first, their precious 20 per cent.  

That is secondary schooling. But the primary schools are also exclusionary. If you are well connected your child with get into certain schools. If not, he or she will not. Getting your child into primary school in this country is a game. Families with more social chips win. 

Recently I got a circular from some concerned people, expressing concern that children of Laventille were not being able to find good primary schools that would accept them. This is where we are. These children did not make themselves. They did not choose to be born in Laventille. They have a long-standing Roman Catholic church on the hill, to which my mother took me as an infant, but no Catholic primary school, and no Catholic secondary school. 

 Sat Maharaj, and Fr Clyde Harvey, my good friend, are both indicted, along with others, on different counts, for being complicit in a system of inequity, and indeed of iniquity, in schooling. Sat’s educational concerns in this country end where Hindu children are provided for. At least he is open about it. Fr Harvey is a priest of the people, and I would like him to say to his church, and mine, that we must get away from the colonial logics of the 1860s, and see education through socially conscious eyes. 

What stake could the Catholic Church have, in accepting year after year only the best and brightest students in the country, seeing that these students represent largely parents who are at least middle class? What does the church have against average students? Pope Francis has asked the Catholic Church to get back to basics and to be concerned about the poor and the oppressed. The church across the world has been too cozy with the elite. It is not the business of the church or the temples and mosques to pick who will be doctors or lawyers and who will sweep the streets of the society. The church as a collective must have more compassion, and must encourage their patrons to get out of the horse-race of favouring only winners in education, with the devil taking the hindmost.  

One of the reforms we need in education is for the state to become pre-eminent in the provision of education. The state must do in education what it does when it provides hospitals, water, roads, courts of justice, police stations or aeroplanes, that is, its approach must be egalitarian. There are state hospitals for all, and there are private hospitals for who can afford. If a government school gets the best students in the country at age 12, and even if this is a comprehensive school, that school will yield the most scholars at CAPE level. The denominational schools offer no particular model of education, no particular exemplary modes of teaching that explain their success. They simply get the best students year after year, as they did when they got Eric Williams and Vidia Naipaul. That is their open secret.

In my view the primary reform needed in education is to get the pre-school centres up and running, especially in poor communities. The state should set reading level targets for these institutions, with the goal that every child is a reader by the time he/she starts primary school. If every child is reading on the day he/she starts primary school, that effectively gives the child an equal place at the starting line. Children should go to neighbourhood schools, at both the primary and secondary levels. 

The next reform I see is for the state to stop using taxpayers’ money to fund denominational schools. These schools should essentially be run like they are all over the world, that is, as private schools. Those who can afford, could send their children to these schools, like they did to the old St Bedes. The state should use taxpayers’ money to ensure that all state schools are up to some standard of excellence. There is much evidence, to be seen in Couva East Secondary, and St Augustine Senior Secondary (in the days of Osmond Downer), that government schools can be centres of academic excellence. Let the state see about the educational needs of taxpayers, and let the churches concentrate on their primary mission of catering to the soul.