“...Somehow, the society has interpreted this exam as something that determines the entire course of a child’s life and of a family’s life, and this is not what this exam was meant to be.”
– Dr Dianne Douglas, clinical psychologist
IT IS intriguing to me that over the past few years, increasing emphasis has been placed on the conduct of parents as it relates to the Secondary Entrance Assessment (SEA) rather than that of the children. As more than 18,000 of our children await their fate, I find myself dreading the aftermath. The newspaper pullouts, endless debates about our education system, should we or should we not publish the results, tears, smiles...Repeat.
I listened in dismay to the television interview with Dr Douglas about SEA and the skewed direction in which our society is heading. The more she described some of the strange activities engaged in by parents, the more I wondered if we have lost our way. Bewilderingly, she described instances of parents giving their children “clean-outs” or holding long prayer meetings the night before the exam.
Dysfunctional behaviour included threatening children, even to the point of telling them not to come back home if they did not do well, or hanging around the school during the exam. Douglas explained that even actions like a long, lingering hug as the child goes into the exam sets them up to believe that something bad is about to happen.
More than that, this sort of hysteria serves to entrench the belief that every examination that one will have to take will be stressful or catastrophically life-changing in some way.
I certainly think it goes back to the view that failure is not an option. The modern interpretation of failure as a pathway to success is not yet part of our cultural make-up. So, rather than promote “do your best,” we hold on to preconceived notions about what is one’s best. And regardless of the type of school, stereotypes about what achievement looks like exist.
Additionally, if we are honest, we would admit that there are practical challenges with the teaching profession. From a paucity of male teachers to a need to review pay structures and ensure more rigour as it concerns disciplining rogue educators, serious attention is required.
Thus, as we head towards 60 years of independence from colonial rule, has our education system evolved enough? Further, do we understand the needs of 21st century students? From a cultural or artistic perspective, certainly there are enormous gaps.
In the country that invented the pan, we are still talking (and talking) about putting our national instrument in all schools. Meanwhile, countries from Japan to the US and Australia recognise the value of our creation. They are going ahead making and selling pans, arranging, forming their own pan associations and, yes, they also have pan in schools.
The issue is not just about protecting our national heritage. Culture and the arts have been proved around the world to be legitimate streams of education, as well as having tremendous value as vehicles to learning other subjects. Last year, one British parent used his skill as a music producer to create an app that helped his son and other students increase their grades in physics, mathematics and other subjects, through music, dance and targeted videos.
This speaks not only to the need for education institutions to take the arts more seriously, but it raises the important question of empowered parents. Significantly, our National Parenting Policy makes reference to “vulnerable parents.” These include single parents, fathers, teenage parents and even grandparents as parents.
Admittedly, parents and guardians are themselves under a great deal of stress, financially and otherwise. Worse, our elitist system of prestige and non-prestige schools and mysterious zoning systems do not help.
It must be remembered as well that our school system is facing rampant mental illness amongst students. According to one report, “there are over 12,000 students within the country’s education system suffering from mental illness and in need of targeted therapy.” Twelve thousand. In a country of just 1.3 million people, is this not too high a price to pay?
It is time for our leaders to accept that many errors have been made and much time has been wasted. If we are to achieve our potential heights as a nation, we must give our young people the education system they need; help them to ride the waves of success and not drown in an increasingly murky SEA.
Dara E Healy is a performance artist, communications specialist and founder of the NGO, the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN