Ilka Hilton-Clarke


Marion O'Callaghan

Marion O'Callaghan is a columnist with theclick here to go to Newsday's website

This article was published in the Newsday  Monday, July 6, 1998

Primary Schools?
"If no one will- over to you Pastor Cuffie!

by Marion O'Callaghan- ©copyright 1998

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WELL THE Common Entrance results are out. Some parents have breathed an excited oof. Children have got their first choice, i.e. they have passed the first barrier not only to an "elite" school but for entry or maintenance into the Middle Class. I look back with nostalgia to the day when I won what was then the "Exhibition".
That I had passed almost wiped away the long hours of study, the piano lessons gone kaput, the Tranquility teacher I heartily disliked, the fellow child bullies who had made my life hell, and the flogging for some wrong answer I had given.

Memories of those would surface later, continue to surface. That day I had won.

Winning was entering the Middle Class or staying in it. Now I know that is was as simple as that.No, not only for me, but for the family. Their entry had depended on my father and uncle winning in those days before the First World War.
I thought of the children who won today. And then of the children who did not win.

In my day the Primary School mattered. We knew which ones "took" exhibitions, which teachers "got" passes. We could count on what was, it is true, a relatively short list, Tranquillity six and the first to boot.

Nelson Street Boys five, San Fernando got seven. Schools publicly competed as did teachers and principals. Competed publicly through results published publicly. And so I have maintained an interest in which school did what.

I must admit that my interest has increased with the news of education reforms, These from text books, to an increase in seven year schools, to the ending of the Commen Entrance to a revision of the Concordat, suggest change in so many areas, that it adds up to change in policy : that is, if we open a real debate. A debate is there over the Common Entrance. This pushed by an increasing concern for the impact of training like the veritable racehorses which often accompanies its preparation.

But who, and which schools got those passes and which passes ? After all Town says that some Primary Schools are Junior Sec factories.

Easy Scapegoats

The results published in the newspapers have not helped me. I have underlined the names of the children I know passed - because their parents told me before over the telephone, but the long list of passes under Bishop's, QRC, Presentation, this or that Junior Sec, is hardly either news or information.
I will have to hope that Sat Maharaj proceeds on to lambaste some group of schools to get some inkling of "news". Now I am one who, on one issue concerning the abolition of the Common Entrance, agrees with Sat Maharaj.

The very first issue is not the Common Entrance - it is the primary School. You can abolish as you ike, assess as you like, test as you like, some children will not pass. Some will be shunted off to the "holding bays" Sat calls them - and I agree- of Junior Secs, some will go on to the coveted elite schools or their equivalents in any new system, at least at the forseeable future.

And, it is there the scandal of our educational selection, who goes where, will only in a very small degree be because of intelligence.

It will primarily be determined by wealth, class, race and religion; in other words the Common Entrance - or any other method that we use under present conditions, will reinforce, and not abolish, the inequalities and conflicts in our society. Ah, I know the glib answer "the family", "moral values". Partly true, but I suspect that they have been, in some degree, always with us.

Further I suspect that they are easy scapegoats. I would prefer to start with that first through the educational system: the Primary School.

Now in my snooping I have discovered that there is a ranking in Primary Schools which will collect the greatest number of fist choice passes. A number - not all - of private schools, particularly in the North, are beyond the pockets of most people. We can forget them.

Next in order will be Presbyterian and Maha Sabha schools, followed by some Catholic and then some government schools - I suspect in that order.

It takes no great logic therefore to divine why selection is by wealth, class, race and religion, nor, to push it further, why there is a correlation between crime, race and religion.

Even if we leave aside other factors, the educational system would be sufficient explanation. And so the question what distinguishes the Primary Schools which succeed from which do not.

The first answer seems to be discipline. Now some of this discipline has, I suspect, an undesirable impact on what is in any case our very authoritarian society - that for an other article.

But, quite frankly, if the choice between St Mary's through licks like peas, and a Junior Sec, I would, like my parents before, choose Mary's and licks. It is not only simple licks. Undisciplined schools where everyone is shouting, noise is endemic, classes can't be controlled are not likely to foster two key ingredients to learning and indeed of future work : concentration and comprehension. True the layout of many schools does not help. But discipline remains the key factor. That discipline must obviously be the number one concern of the Government. News that parents stroll into classes and threaten teachers is bad news to be taken seriously. So is the news that children having failed Level A are passed on automatically to Level B , and on to Level C without anyone really caring. I have heard of bright but dyslexic children being caught up with only after they had failed the Common Entrance, or parents being persuaded that their children were soaring for the best of the best, only to discover that they were sitting at the back of the classes.

Worse are the teachers who themselves can't be disciplined and who, chalk up the number of casual and sick days they " haven't taken yet", or the principals, who, appointed by seniority - and not for competence - are awaiting retirement or have simpy " reached".

True, presbyterian and Maha Sabha schools have a share of these ills but the level of community pressure and sanctions mitigate them. Work here by the way for Black Empowerment Groups.

Few irate Indian parents will march into Sat's schools and threaten to beat up a teacher. Few teachers will take their casual leave, their class unattended.

And few Ministry officials will tangle with Sat if he wishes a principal appointed. It is not by chance that Government schools - the most likely to be bureaucratised - are also the least likely to enforce discipline. Obviously here, TUTTA or not, rules of promotion, of rewards and of sanctions need to be seriously revised. After all the Government is there to get our children educated.

It is not primarily there to serve teachers.

Don't misunderstand me. There are a number of teachers who are heroic, who are social workers, parents, maintenance persons rolled into one and under conditions where toilets may not work, one or more parents may be absent and the neighbourhood is tough and deprived. Surely there should be some special and tangible rewards for these teachers as well as the recognition that in some areas other specialised staff are necessary.

It is not however only Government schools in question. It is also Catholic and to some lesser degree Anglican schools which at present serve the poor black population. Questions must be asked of these too.

We are yet so see the degree of commitment at some- note the word - of these schools that we see at most Presbyterian and Hindu schools and yet presumably are governed by the same relationship to the State, and in the case of Catholic schools have at least the same available wealth within the wider church community, and a longer history of teaching and of administration than, say Hindu schools.
It would seem to me that Catholics concerned with justice or with peace would be more credible if they made the workings of Catholic schools in poor areas their No 1 priority, in terms not only of literacy, but of the equality of chances for entry in those elite schools.

If Government schools can't do it, if the existing denominational schools can't do it, then over to you Pastor Cuffie. I for one, am willing to back anyone who can of whatever religion, sect or cult. The situation is desperate.

But there are other issues which the Government must address if the Common Entrance or any assessment in its place is to be indicative of real merit. It may well be necessary to review class size where children come from difficult neighbourhoods. A class of 40 is fine where discipline is already established. It may not be where discipline is not. Above all children have little chance of success where they are taught in, and encouraged to speak in, the vernacular, or where in some populist misconception, they must be brought up in "their culture". That culture, however rich and valid, is not now producing ingredients for social mobility. In some cases that culture is the drug culture of sneakers and do what you like. We can't afford this.

Nor can we afford parents who keep their children at home for the flimsiest of reasons. In this latter case, drastic measures are now needed both with regard to accurate statistics and reporting of children absent, and with regard to the prosecution of errant parents.

Yes it is with the Primary School I would start. Our inequalities in education are a national scandal.

I wonder why some enterprising group has not hauled us up before some International Human Rights Commission for contravening the Rights to Education and equalities in its provision.



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