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Wednesday 13 November 2019
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Commentary

Dilemmas in education

Dilemma. This is described as “a situation in which a choice has to be made between two equally undesirable (or desirable) alternatives.”

Being open-ended and promising very noble objectives, the education system faces several dilemmas.

A major one is the pressure, often political, to create more school places in a hurry. In fact, this is a large part of our post-colonial history in education. It was physical expansion, hurriedly as required, but with the requirements for quality education left behind, and further behind as time passes.

The lingering consequences were quite deleterious, as revealed, for example, in the 1975 Moses Report on the shift system in junior secondary schools, then in the 1994 Report on Placement in Secondary Schools and more recently in the 2016 book Inequality, Crime and Education. The political battle for the 1960 Concordat and the eventual successes of the government-assisted denominational schools provided some controversial relief.

Building more government schools, 100 or 16, carries political value. But the well-known deficiencies in many existing ones are not yet really solved (for example management, performance, accountability, etc). Like new wine in old bottles. Inequity will likely be compounded.

How will government solve this dilemma?

A critical fact today is that, after all, whatever the educational inequity within the present generation, the next generation will face aggravated inequity.

The Prime Minister must now urgently prioritise education alongside crime reduction, for example, by listing government’s remedies for the problems of African males, as he duly described them. This society has been facing serious problems of educational inequity for a long time. What are the remedial, evidence-driven proposals from political parties as we head into 2020 elections?

When an ineffective educational system perpetuates inequity, the authorities should bravely avoid hiding behind denial or distractions. There is political risk in a government admitting mistakes. But the risk is worth it if remedies are simultaneously proposed. The education system is too important for self-improvement and national development.

Some further issues:

1. Fed initially by bright students, the relative success of the government-assisted secondary schools remains their strong defence, while many government schools, as columnist Helen Drayton stated, remain “without emancipation”: without measurable, coherent and comprehensive reform policies.

2. Even so, it remains a pity that school success is so much determined by purely grammar-type examinations and, worse yet, in a country already flooded with doctors and lawyers, with almost 50 per cent of its university graduates migrating. It is like colonialism in disguise. Technical/vocational qualifications face challenges for comparable prestige.

3. The inevitable role of “social contact” in socio-economic mobility and status in the society adds disproportionally to the disadvantages of working-class students – even those who achieve academic success.

4. The socialised tolerance for educational inequity in our twisted capitalist system has sunk deeply into public consciousness. To help legitimise educational meritocracy, however, there must be reasonable proportionality in achievement among various socio-economic and ethnic groups. It takes courage, brain-power and vision to have an education system override family and environmental disadvantages. It has been and can be done, especially at primary school.

5. Yes, some improve, but too many get disproportionally left behind, then become parents of poor families. What can a government do?

6. The education system is so large and diffuse that the injuries from inequity remain unnoticed for long periods. The evidence on disproportionality, when it arises, brings great discomfort to the authorities. Pressured by the five-year term, the political option is usually denial or procrastination.

In the book Inequality, Crime and Education in Trinidad and Tobago, one of the 14 recommendations is:

“To help specify what could be improved in the under-performing government secondary schools, a pilot project of ten new schools can be selected and staffed with a select group of appropriately trained teachers. Enrol as a start only 'low-scoring' SEA students who did not get into their preferred schools, and see with appropriate management, teaching techniques, etc, the extent to which these students eventually improve and match up with the success rate (eg CAPE, CSEC) of the students who got into their chosen (prestige) schools.”

It is hoped these dilemma-driven issues help promote a healthy discussion on our vital education system.

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