Minister of Education, Dr Rupert Roopnaraine is apparently hopeful that extra lessons can in due course be dispensed with. Earlier this month Stabroek News quoted him as saying “My own feeling is that we have to ensure the kind of experience in the classroom that makes extra lessons a thing of the past.” It is not that his sentiments are not in the right place; it is rather that several of his predecessors have made efforts to address the problem with little or no success.
In the first place, this is an examination-driven culture, not an education-driven one, and far from exams giving some idea of the levels of education displayed by a child at a given stage, we are teaching with the specific aim of passing exams. Whether a very high mark at the Grade Six Assessment, for example, is always indicative of an educationally rounded eleven-year-old is perhaps a moot point, but the danger is always that there will be a resort on the part of some educators to drilling techniques rather than real teaching, where the classroom becomes more akin to a factory assembly line than an educative space.
The extra lessons syndrome, as it is known, falls into three phases: the Grades Two and Four Assessments; the Grade Six Assessment and, at the secondary school level, the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC), popularly known as CXCs. One presumes that there will also be extra lessons connected to the Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Examination (CAPE), but the numbers sitting exams at this level are relatively small and consequently not so important in terms of the amount of outside tuition involved.
Fewer students are involved in the CSEC exams than is the case with the primary school assessments, and Dr Roopnaraine seemed to be of the view that if fewer subjects were sat at CXC, rather than the 20 which some students opt to take, this might improve matters in terms of extra lessons. It might, but it probably would not eliminate the problem completely because of English and Maths, which are compulsory subjects and are the ones around which the extra lessons culture is mainly (although not exclusively) centred.
Some years ago, the Ministry of Education decided to dispense with the word ‘exam’ when testing in the primary system, and substitute the word assessment. The idea, the public was told, was that children would be ‘assessed’, not ‘examined’ so the officers in the ministry and their teachers could identify those who were struggling in English or Arithmetic, say, and establish how well a cohort was doing overall. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that in principle; however, the Grade Six also had to function as a placement exercise for the senior secondary schools, which are very limited in number, so that right from the beginning its exam function overtook its assessment function. The result is, every parent now regards it as a formal test which their child can pass or fail – and ‘passing’ in this instance from the viewpoint of the parents, requires very high marks indeed. It is with this exam, more than with any other, that extra lessons are associated.
Where the spread of the extra lessons disease to the Grades Two and Four children is concerned, the Ministry of Education itself must accept total responsibility. Five per cent of the marks at Grade Two, and ten per cent at Grade Four are included in the final Grade Six Assessment marks, the latter accounting for 85% of the result in its own right. Since parents now see these two early assessments as contributing to their children’s educational outcome further down the line, they regard them as exams and treat them accordingly.
Given that the Grade Six is in part a placement exam, it is patently unfair to include marks from ‘tests’ taken years earlier in a child’s life to compute the final result, however minor a contribution these may make. As said above, when they started out, these two early assessments were intended as just that – assessments; however, it seems that the ministry discovered that parents didn’t take them seriously, and as such it was difficult to capture all the pupils at once at a designated time for assessment purposes. It was decided, therefore, to include a few of the marks from Grades Two and Four in the Grade Six total. The stratagem worked. The parents took notice and as a consequence the extra lessons industry began to crank up to serve the nation’s smaller schoolchildren.
While the ministry did not intend that extra lessons should raise their unwelcome head, now that it has happened, they should perhaps give thought to abandoning the practice of incorporating marks from the earlier assessments in those from the Grade Six, and cast around for another method of ensuring that parents cooperate in having their children take the assessments in the lower grades.
Of course, as said above, the lynchpin of the extra lessons business is the Grade Six; in fact outside tuition in relation to this test has been with us so long that it has become institutionalized, which will make it all the harder to dislodge. Dr Roopnaraine listed some of the major problems associated with it, not the least of which is teachers not teaching in school in order to generate a demand for the classes they offer outside school hours. His feeling was, he told this newspaper, “that we have to ensure the kind of experience in the classroom that makes extra lessons a thing of the past.” That of course is the ideal, but how to implement it is another matter. It is not a short-term proposition involving, as it does, more quality teachers in the schools, better management on the part of heads, and a very active inspectorate which can really monitor what is going on in the classrooms. Given that every eleven-year-old in the country has to sit the Grade Six Assessment, and that education, like every other sphere of life here is not without its human resource challenges, the Minister should not be too optimistic that things are going to turn around in the immediate future.
He did, however, put his finger if only incidentally on the crucial issue in this story, and that is teacher remuneration. Implicit in all his remarks as reported, is the assumption that it is teachers in the public school system who are the primary ones driving the extra lessons industry. There is probably some truth in this, at least where the Grade Six Assessment is concerned, although they are not the only ones. The problem quite simply is that many of those involved in it have now become so accustomed to monetary rewards well in excess of their basic salaries, that they will not be disposed to relinquish them.
Furthermore, even if Minister Roopnaraine succeeded in persuading the Minister of Finance and the cabinet to raise teachers’ salaries – which admittedly needs to be done – it is very unlikely they would be raised sufficiently to compete with the rate of compensation extra lessons afford. In addition, the improved salaries may still not be enough to tempt back into the system former public school teachers who came out of it in favour of offering extra lessons after school hours.
As for parents, as long as they feel that tuition outside the school walls will give their child an extra edge, they will fork out the money for it, no matter what the financial strain. To abandon that approach they would need the confidence that the schools are really offering their children a decent education, and that extra lessons are superfluous.
In short, what the Minister will probably find is that pernicious though extra lessons for the most part are, he will not be able to get rid of them quickly; he may be able to reduce the problem somewhat, but rooting it out would require a much upgraded education system, and that, as mentioned earlier, is not something which will be accomplished soon.