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Sunday, July 16, 2017

My last column couldn’t fit all the inspiring post-SEA messages for families with children bound for the nation’s lowest-ranked secondary schools that I received from a generation of high achievers who’ve graduated from them. The Skeetes, teachers themselves, highlight again the power of parenting and how committed people, who staffed those schools in their early years, make a powerful difference.

Gerald & Geraldine Skeete attended Marabella West and San Fernando East Secondary Schools. “I have always been proud to state that I am a product of the junior secondary school system. I have been doing so for the past 30-plus years of my teaching career, especially during school graduations and when SEA results are released.

This has been to give words of encouragement to students and parents that “the world is not lost” if a child attends a junior secondary or other non-prestigious school. It’s not the school you pass for, but what you do when you get there. I always relate to them that my sister and I are among many others who have passed through the system and were able to attain high achievement despite the negative labelling of these schools by many in society.

I am very thankful that my mother supported my sister and me when we both decided to attend junior secondary school despite having a second chance at writing the Common Entrance examination. Today I know she is very happy and proud of all our achievements.”

“My twin brother holds a BEd degree, is a senior teacher at a primary school and is a District Commissioner in the Boy Scout movement. I have a PhD in Literatures in English and lecture at The University of the West Indies, and have also taught at the primary and secondary levels. These accomplishments are the results of us both having had a good formal education, supported by good parenting. I have encountered students from all walks of life who have done well through sheer grit and ambition regardless of the secondary school they had passed for.

“Trinidad and Tobago is a classist society where education is closely linked to social status. It will take a long time to undo the ingrained biases associated with secondary school placements, which are also considered to be indicators of intelligence. Because our attitudes play a major part in effecting change, these factors need to be taken into consideration in determining the reformation of education policy and assessment practices even as more opportunities for, and mass democratisation of, schooling in our country continue to flourish.”

But these stories, many caution—even their narrators—betray the students who cannot read them with their families and who will find in their schools, violence, neglect and teachers who do not resemble those in the stories.

Keron King, PhD, a criminologist, attended St Joseph and St Augustine Secondary Schools. “SEA is a representation of everything wrong with our education system. It is stressful, it disfigures true education, and it sends a message to the vast majority of our 11-year-olds that you have failed. In 1995, I was one of those 11-year-olds. Before Common Entrance I hadn’t really internalised failure, nor did I consider myself less than. I don’t remember much about the day I got my results. Just the intense feeling of failure.

“My classmates who had supportive parents made it out okay. But those who came from homes that either did not value education, or did not have time or know-how to offer the assistance, did not. Most of my friends are employed in exploitative situations or one of the arms of national security. Not because they believe in public safety, but because it’s the most secure job you can get with five passes.

“I would say my teachers at “Gustine” and “Curepe” were equally competent as prestige school teachers. But there were a few of them who did not believe in us. I remember my Maths teacher telling my class in Form 5 (we did not have any Maths teacher in Form 4) that none of us would pass. He was almost right: one person passed. My colleagues all shared horror stories of teachers who never came to class or just got tired of trying to manage a class of 34 boys and girls who all had significant family challenges.

“The typical underperforming state-run schools are not places to send students. A teacher at one of mine said she wouldn’t even send a dog to that school now.

“I don’t agree with this narrative that we all can make it regardless of the school. That is not my experience; most of us do not make it. Regardless of how one defines ‘make it.’ Most of my classmates did not get a full CXC certificate. Most of us still do not quite understand mathematics; many still cannot write, read for understanding, or think critically. We have huge gaps in our knowledge, which by itself isn’t bad, as knowledge can always be attained. But most of us have very low self-esteem and it significantly influences our adult lives.

“At a tertiary institution where I teach, few of my students went to a prestige school. Most underperformed at secondary school, and a constant variable amongst them all is lack of belief in their ability to learn, excel and produce high quality work. I feel privileged to work with them. But this system is destroying many of us every year and we need to put an end to it.”

I’ve deeply appreciated the rich ongoing public debate over the SEA, and the growing agreement that the status quo must change. Yet many commentators demonstrate how deeply wedded to inequality and stratification as ways of life we are that we can’t imagine another.

Archbishop Joe sends me, though. I will miss him. Each time a Government minister tries to hide their own backwardness under his cassock, he lifts it and chases them away. When Kamla blamed Catholics for her cowardice to repeal criminalisation of homosexuality, he called her reckless and went on radio to say his Church does not oppose decriminalisation.

When Bishop Burke and Brother Harry took to the airwaves, touting a majority IRO position in support of retaining child marriage, he labelled it legalised statutory rape. Last week the recessive Education Minister, boasting he’s as old as Common Entrance, hid behind the Concordat and Constitution and offered his version of what Marsha Riley dubbed “I did Common Entrance and I turned out fine.”

It’s violence to children, said his faith leader. And so is social promotion of those unprepared for secondary school.

Child marriage is gone. I have faith for the other two.


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