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A 'SEA' of confusion in education

Independent - April 04, 2001
By Raffique Shah

THE fallacy of universal secondary education that is being foisted upon hapless (I shall refrain from using the term "stupid") parents and helpless children has reached sickening proportions. Last week, when the first Secondary Education Assessment (SEA) examination was held, replacing the much-maligned Common Entrance examination, Education Minister Kamla Persad Bissessar once more trumpeted the perceived superiority of the former, touting it as one of the greatest achievements of her government. In the process, she slammed the PNM Government that unloaded 30 years of misery-in-education on the nation's children, the mal-effects of which are reflected in the large number of young criminals, all of whom are presumed to be victims of "PNM mis-education".

Now, it is a reality that the political "silly season" did not end with the general election of last December. Campaigning by both main parties did not stop on that day, and the UNC's slim majority in the House and the numerous challenges it faces in court could signal a new election sometime soon. But for how long must we citizens be subjected to the rhetoric of campaigning as opposed to enjoying good governance?

The ruling party's frontline speakers remind us on a daily basis of every drain that was cleaned, every pavement that was built, every "hamper" that was donated to some needy family during its stewardship. Look, we are not fools, nor are we ungrateful. Does the Government really believe that motorists are not aware of the extensive road-paving programme that it has undertaken? If anything, there are questions about the durability of the jobs and the fact that some good surfaces (like sections of the Churchill-Roosevelt highway) are being re-paved while some very bad roads remain untouched. Communities that have had pipe-borne water for the first time are thankful for this basic necessity. Of course, if water fails to flow in the pipelines, new or old, then consumers would react angrily.

But generally, it is accepted that the UNC Government has "performed", if performance is judged on the basis of doing what governments are elected to do. What is unacceptable is the claim by the UNC that the PNM did nothing for 30 years. In its attempts at "one-upmanship" on the PNM, it has caused Senator Tim Gopeesingh to make a fool of himself in his maiden contribution to the Senate, and it has reduced pamper-wearing Carlos from the "Jackal" to the "Jack-you-know-what". But Kamla takes the cake with her "places for asses" line as far as the secondary education system goes.

Because most UNC ministers, with the possible exception of old stagers like "Papa" John Humphrey and "Uncle" Basdeo Panday, are products of PNM education. If they claim to be educated, it cannot be that they mysteriously by-passed (no offence intended, Bas) the system, refused to sit the CE and CXC examinations, refused to attend colleges they passed for, and still pose with university degrees. Unless, of course, they purchased their doctorates or whatever a la Pastor Jheri Curls! So they all benefited from the system, yet they damn the bridges they crossed.

I am not remotely suggesting that the CE and CXC were the best methods of testing students, of determining what secondary schools they attended, or for preparing them for life. Panday and Humphrey are products of the colonial education system in which the College Exhibition examination determined the 100 or so top primary school students who would enjoy free secondary education. When they were teenagers, a small percentage of children attended secondary schools. On the one hand, many parents could not afford to educate their children (one had to pay to attend almost every secondary school), while others needed "every hand on (the work) deck", so children who were not yet teens were sent to work.

Then came Eric Williams, who, within three years of coming to power (and that as Premier in a self-governing state), introduced free secondary education at approved schools. I was among the first beneficiaries of that system: my sugar worker father did not have to fork out $16 a term after April 1959, and I, along with thousands in similar financial circumstances, went on to show our gratitude to both parents and Premier by performing well in college. I should add at this stage that our college education did not make us superior to our friends in primary schools who did not qualify for secondary education. There was in place a post-primary system, which, when combined with the trade and commercial schools of the period, produced some of the finest minds in the country.

But there were always children, some of them victims of parental circumstances (homes in which one or both parents were alcoholics), others suffering with learning disorders, who resisted education. They weren't "dunce" in the strictest sense of the word: they just could not be bothered with books and learning. And, I argue, there will always be such elements in the society, matters not whether there is universal secondary education or if free meals are an added attraction. So when Kamla and her colleagues boast about "a place for every child" in secondary schools, what they ignore is that more than 10 per cent of those children are being coerced into a system they want nothing to do with.

This is a reality not only here, but in some of the most developed societies in the world. And lest we want to replicate the "examination mills" of Singapore or Japan, in which case we need to add the coercive powers that go them, then we, too, will always have our share of people who do not wish to pursue secondary education. A place for every child, therefore, means just that-a desk or bench, but nothing more. The Government claims the CE examination was responsible for excluding 10,000 children or more every year from secondary schools. True. But the dropout or failure rate among those who attended secondary schools was high, so what will happen when you add those who could not pass the CE (or now the SEA) to the system?

A sea of "failures", that's what we'll be saddled with. They cannot cope with primary school work but they are being forced into the secondary system! When (or if) they get to CXC level and cannot cope with what they are faced with, won't they be deemed "failures"? So if the "old PNM" system produced 10,000 "failures" a year at the primary school level, the "new UNC" system will produce even more-except now they will be of age to "graduate" directly into the world of crime and drug abuse.

Delinquency will increase. In fact, with Kamla's "no flogging" edict, we have already seen a quantum leap in delinquency, in violence against fellow students and teachers. And while the new "crime mill" is being fine-tuned by government and by stupid parents who believe secondary school places would automatically produce educated children, hundreds of bright students are denied tertiary education because they are too poor to afford it. I sometimes wonder if Kamla or her colleagues are aware of this anomaly?

They have deceived the masses (or asses) into believing the tripe of "free school", but the annual increases in fees at UWI continue to deny opportunities to many who cannot afford foreign tertiary education. I hope Finance Minister Gerald Yet Ming, who seems to be one of the more sensible ministers in Cabinet, notes this nonsense that has been going on for however long, and moves to rectify it. Because it will be in the nation's interest to give freely to those who work hard from young, and who deserve university education, rather than waste resources on others who have no interest in academics.

And that's the point Panday, Kamla and others are missing. "Freeness" at the secondary level may yield votes at election time, just as paved roads or water-in-taps do. But it will hardly lift our general standard of education. It most certainly will not transform us into a Japan. Unless, of course, we look at meritocracy as the main criterion for upward mobility, and we do not ignore those who have proved their worth while we reward "cobweb-brained" kids who attend Kamla's schools only to warm benches and eat warm, free meals.

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