The annual National Grade Six Assessment results were announced on Friday, and as is normal on these occasions the emphasis rightly was on the star performers, and by extension the top one per cent of the candidates. It was their moment for some deserved attention after all their hard work, not forgetting that of their parents and teachers. After giving them due praise, Minister Manickchand at a press briefing did disclose a few statistics of interest, namely, that five regions were not represented among the top 173 students (1%), and that nearly half of the latter came from private schools.
What she did not deal with – and in fairness to her could not have dealt with on that occasion – was the breakdown of all the results, to establish how well or poorly the whole Grade Six student body performed. (16,811 candidates sat the Grade Six Assessment.) This is not a pointless exercise; it is the only indicator of educational levels throughout the school system for that age cohort, as opposed to how the best students did. Some pupils will always do well for one reason or another, no matter how dysfunctional the education system. The Minister’s predecessor has certainly made public a general analysis of the results in their larger aspect in the past, revealing some years ago that an alarming number of candidates who sat the exam could not cope with it at all, and were probably functionally illiterate. One hopes that in due course a senior official of the Ministry of Education will provide general statistics in relation to the Assessment, and give an analysis of what these tell us.
What was clear from Friday’s press briefing was the continuation of the trend whereby the private schools are doing well, with Mae’s Under 12 securing five spots in the top ten. While one would expect that better resources and most of all, better quality teaching than is available in the state schools would account for this, there may be an additional factor in play. That factor quite simply is that since fees are required, it is the more affluent parents who will be able to send their children to private institutions. Middle class parents – and professional parents, in particular – provide the kind of home background where there are books around and a great emphasis is placed on education. They are also in a position to guide and assist their children in terms of their schooling. In more than one study in the UK it has been demonstrated that in general, the state schools which do best are those which have a larger component of middle class children.
It might be mentioned in passing that the learning environment in the best private schools, at least, will be better than in some (not all) of the state schools, partly because in some cases – although again not all – the pupils will come from more disciplined and supervised home backgrounds. Add to this the key fact that the school authorities are in complete disciplinary control and can warn parents about a child’s behaviour; as a last resort they will simply expel a difficult student without much ado. The disciplinary crisis in some sectors of the state system, although more pronounced at the secondary than at the primary level, militates against learning.
Having said that, one must presume that not all private schools are success stories. It appears to the untrained eye that these institutions are mushrooming all around, and it is possible that some of them are not performing at the level they should.
Of course it would be misleading to assume that students in the state schools have not been exposed to private tuition. The pernicious private lessons industry will continue apace because of its lucrativeness, and one presumes too that there are still teachers in the public primary schools who are not doing their job in the classroom in order to put pressure on parents to send their children to their afternoon lessons. At least in the better private schools there will be far more control over the quality of teaching during school hours. What one wants to know is just how many of the best performers – both those in private schools and those in the public system – attended extra lessons. If teaching in the classroom is adequate – it doesn’t even have to be exceptional – then extra lessons should be quite superfluous.
In a general sense too, one would expect that the top private schools might attract the best teachers. Where the state schools are concerned, we quoted the Minister as saying that “Our country has moved from 30% trained teachers to 70% trained teachers. What we have to examine is whether we have seen the corresponding shift in results.” Teachers, of course, are the critical resource when seeking to upgrade educational performance, and the fact that 70% of them in public schools are now trained is unfortunately no absolute guarantee that this will translate into quality teaching. Young people who go into training from the basis of a defective school background will not become the best teachers unless on their own they continue to read and learn in order to fill some of the lacunae in their education. In a somewhat different context Ms Manickchand acknowledged that, “We have to make sure… what it is… [children] are learning and what quality, and that is something we are addressing.”
The Minister’s biggest difficulty is that five regions were not represented in the top 1% at all, namely, Regions One, Five, Seven, Eight and Nine. Region Five excepted, the others are hinterland areas, and the issues there, as the Minister was reported as saying, revolve around recruiting sufficient qualified teachers for the interior. That is not likely to be a problem easily solved in the short term.
While the National Grade Six Assessment is no longer referred to as an exam, it has not changed its format from the Secondary Schools Entrance Examination which preceded it. As such, it has inherited the weaknesses of its predecessor, more especially the Social Studies paper which in terms of its accuracy, among other things, is the same disaster it always was.
In order to cultivate the pretence that the Grade Six is really an assessment and not an exam, marks from the assessments at the Grades Two and Four levels are included to arrive at the final result. Although they account for only a small percentage of the total, the practice is still inherently unfair considering that the top Grade Six students are placed, and the assessment is really for the purpose of allocating them to senior secondary schools. Placements, therefore, should really be undertaken on the basis of the National Grade Six Assessment alone. For the bulk of the students the NGSA can be regarded as an assessment, however, since they are not placed and are required if possible to attend the school nearest their homes regardless of marks.