Grade Six Assessment

A former Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Education under the PPP/C administration, Mr Hydar Ally, had a letter published in this newspaper on Good Friday. He said that over thirteen thousand children ‘competed’ for less than a thousand places in senior secondary schools when they sat the Grade Six Assessment last week. This meant, he went on, that almost ninety per cent of them would be “forced to attend the general secondary schools, or in some cases primary tops…” In other words, in his view, they would be “condemned to a substandard quality of education delivery in public secondary schools.”

The solution, he said, was “for the government to expend more resources to upgrade the quality of the education delivery in all public schools throughout the country and by so doing phase out the highly competitive nature of the examination.” All children would then attend the secondary school in close proximity to where they lived, and all would benefit therefore “from a reasonably good secondary education.”  He then moved on to assert that this is what the reforms in secondary education “initiated” by the previous PPP/C administration were intended to achieve, and that they were “critical” to “democratising” education − whatever that might be.

This is all very strange. It is perfectly true that the initial intention of the previous administration was to eventually abolish streaming in the school system, hence the introduction of ‘assessments’ rather than examinations. It might be noted, however, that it undermined its own stated intentions by transforming the Grades Two and Four Assessments into tests of a sort by incorporating some of the marks from both into the final computation of results for the Grade Six Assessment. As a consequence, the pernicious ‘extra lessons’ virus associated with Grade Six, began to infect Grades Two and Four as well. It was this government which brought a merciful end to that particular aberration.

Why Mr Ally should lecture the present administration about expending more resources to “upgrade the quality of education delivery in all public schools” when it has only been in office for two years, and the PPP/C had twenty-three years to accomplish that end, is not altogether clear. Education reform is a long-term business, and changes take a while to work their way through the system. Furthermore, he, of all people should remember that the Ministry of Education under his own government admitted that the present utilization of the Grade Six Assessment would have to stay for the foreseeable future because they could not bring all the secondary schools up to the same standard in the shorter term.

Neither, it might be added, will the current government be able to do so, despite the increased funding that has been allocated for education.  You can have brand new school buildings and modern equipment, but if you do not have quality teaching these will not produce the kinds of outcome which you are seeking. While there are acceptable education programmes online easily available, there still needs to be some teacher guidance. The answer of the previous government to the teacher problem, was in-service training on as large a scale as funds would facilitate. That, however, is not really a full solution, because teachers who themselves have been inadequately educated lower down the system, generally cannot make good the deficits with in-service training. Education, as has often been remarked, is a cumulative process.

Furthermore, where secondary schools are concerned, subject specialization at a certain level is required, and many teachers simply do not have a confident grasp of the subject areas which they are required to teach. For many years now, the emphasis in training has tended to be on methodology in the classroom, which is perhaps unfortunate. A self-assured teacher familiar with his or her field will have fewer problems teaching to a class than one who is up-to-date on classroom methods, but has a defective grip of the subject matter to be taught.

Attracting well-educated persons into the teaching profession means paying them at a much higher level than any government in recent times has been disposed to do, or perhaps has been able to do. However, the research is clear enough: pay your teachers really well and it translates into major educational benefits – Finland, which is high in the world league tables, being the classic case in point. Of course, this is not to deny that there are many other things wrong with the education system, but teachers are central to the issue.

Mr Ally distinguished the senior secondary schools from the others, but did not say that most of those have sixth forms, and therefore are arguably better staffed in terms of subject specialists than the general secondary schools, and certainly the primary tops. It is not clear whether his view is that all secondary schools should have sixth forms, that none should, or that the sixth form arrangement should stay as it is. His government did briefly flirt with the idea that sixth forms should be abolished, but abandoned it fairly quickly once it was pointed out that this country was committed to CAPE, which replaced ‘A’ levels.

In any event, entry to the sixth form in some schools like Queen’s College has been competitive for many decades, dating back long before the PPP/C acceded to office in 1992.  There is no automatic promotion to a sixth form from the fifth form of a senior secondary school; the students of the school have to compete with all those from other schools who have applied. As such, therefore, failure to gain a place in a senior secondary school at age eleven, does not in and of itself mean that a student is excluded from entry to a sixth form further down the line.

Mr Ally’s plea for a shift in evaluating student performance “which … should not be based on a single examination but on continuous assessment modality” is something of a misrepresentation, more especially given that it was his government which introduced the assessment system in the first place. As mentioned above, there are two assessments before Grade Six, which serve as evaluation tools, not examinations, and then Grade Six itself. While the latter is used to place pupils in senior secondary schools, like its predecessors it is also a mechanism for appraising the progress, problems, etc, of the cohort as a whole, of individual schools and of groups of children in specific locations.

Education is one of those areas which should not be overly subject to partisan accusations and counter-accusations; a school system needs a measure of continuity, and not too many fundamental radical reforms in too short a space of time. As it is, the present government in a general sense has continued with the policies of the previous administration, and if Mr Ally has complaints, therefore, they are complaints which should be directed at the government he once served in a professional capacity.

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