Ex-TTUTA head: Ministry of Education must address literacy

Trevor Oliver
Trevor Oliver

A former president of the Trinidad & Tobago Unified Teachers’ Association (TTUTA) has called on the Ministry of Education to pay particular attention to functional literacy within the school system.

Trevor Oliver, who served two terms as TTUTA president, from 1998-2004, said unless the issue is not addressed urgently, students’ performance in the Secondary Entrance Assessment (SEA) examination will continue to decline.

“If we do not deal with that the system will go down more,” he told Newsday.

Oliver was commenting on the results of the 2022 SEA examination, which revealed that 12,000 students performed below 50 per cent. A total of 19,079 students wrote the exam.

Education Minister Dr Nyan Gadsby-Dolly attributed the decline in achievement to the lack of face-to-face learning during the covid19 pandemic over the past two years.

At a news conference on Friday, Gadsby-Dolly said owing to their poor performance in the exam, some 9,000 pupils will be required to take remedial classes during the July-August vacation before heading to secondary school.

Classes in the ministry’s vacation revision programme are expected to take place at some 26 secondary schools across the country from July 18-August 12, between 9 am-3pm.

Pupils will be accommodated at schools nearest to their homes in classes of no more than 15 students. They will be tutored in fundamental areas – Mathematics, English Language and English Language Arts Writing.

In a memo to stakeholders on Friday, Chief Education Officer Dr Peter Smith said, “Similar to other jurisdictions in the world, our students, at all levels, have suffered learning loss. Given the current context, there is an urgent need for continued action from all stakeholders to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on the education sector.”

Smith said parents of students requiring these remedial classes will be specifically advised that their child is expected to register from July 11-15.

Gadsby-Dolly, at the briefing, said there was an average of 41.9 per cent in Mathematics; English-language Arts Writing (44.3 per cent); and English Language Arts (44.39 per cent). Students performed significantly higher in last year’s exam.

While Oliver agreed with the minister that covid19 and online learning did create challenges for many pupils, he does not believe the issue of functional literacy has ever been addressed comprehensively within the education system.

He said, “Covid19 would have been responsible for the drop in the system. Children were out of physical classes for a long time so it had to have had an input. But there is a serious issue in the country, which I had been trying to address since I was TTUTA president and that is literacy in the schools. It has to be improved because a lot of children are not literate.”

Oliver, who has worked for some 40 years within the education sector, said in order to write the SEA, pupils must be able to read and understand the questions before answering them.

“So you have to be able to deal with language in the SEA exam. You have to be literate to read the questions not just in the English Language component but for all of the subject areas. And to compound the problem, a lot of the children were not in school. So the authorities need to deal with literacy in a serious way.”

Noting that literacy was a global problem, Oliver said he is not suggesting that there are not excellent teachers in the system.

“It is not because of competence or laziness.”

But he believes some teachers need help coping with literacy.

“I have not been hearing anything about functional literacy and the analysis. So let this be a wake-up call. I hope we would not have to deal with anything like covid19 for a long time.”

TTUTA Tobago officer Bradon Roberts believes the concept of the SEA must be revisited urgently. The current arrangement, he feels, is defeating the purpose.

“SEA, in my opinion, is being misused,” he said.

“We using SEA as a pass or fail system instead of assessing students to see which school has the best opportunities to further their development. So it is a win or lose system and emotions usually run very high, even on the exam day itself.”

Roberts said this is counterproductive.

“SEA should be continuous assessment and not this high-stakes exam that is pass or fail.”

Referring to the decline in the performance of Tobago students in the SEA, Roberts again called for further stakeholder engagement on the THA Division of Education, Research and Technology’s proposed Tobago-centric curriculum.

“Since it was announced, I have heard nothing more about it. Consultations need to take place.”He said communities must become involved to support the focus of each school in promoting this agenda.

Alluding to the Mathematics component of the SEA, Roberts said students have told him they were yet to apply what they learnt in school to their everyday lives.

“Students must be taught with real life experiences how Mathematics applies to their lives and it must be made interesting.”

Roberts argued learning should not just be about passing exams. He said he recently attended Goodwood Secondary School’s graduation ceremony and was impressed by how the students were incorporated into the event as ushers.

“Activities such as these go a long way in promoting well-being among students, especially in the area of hospitality because there is always talk about improving the quality of customer service on the island.”

National Parent-Teacher Association (NPTA) president Kevin David welcomed the ministry’s vacation revision programme and urged parents to ensure that their children attend the classes.

Saying the association was not surprised by the general decline in students’ performance in the SEA, owing to covid19, David said there was a “great deficit” in the standard of work that was presented during online classes as opposed to what was revealed when face-to-face learning resumed.

“There was a marked difference because many parents were doing their children’s work for them. So a false narrative was created,” he said during a break from an NPTA general council meeting at Signal Hill Secondary, Tobago.

David said the NPTA also got positive feedback from the SEA portal, which was launched by the ministry’s IT section, thereby allowing parents to receive the results in a timely manner.

“It is important for us to support these initiatives as it lays the framework for the transformation of our education system.”


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