by Barbados Today Traffic
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the author(s) do not represent the official position of Barbados TODAY.
by Garry Hornby
The numerous incidents of school violence in Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica recently reported in the media, remind us of our own issues with violence in schools, including the 16-year-old stabbed to death by another student while at school in Barbados nearly three years ago, which shocked many people.
Such incidents act as ‘canaries in the coal mine’ alerting us to consider whether there are systemic problems that need attention in schools. A likely major issue for all three countries is that their education systems are dominated by selective secondary schooling.
This is based on some form of assessment that brands the majority of children as academic failures at age 11 and leads to over 70 per cent of them leaving school at age 16 without any qualifications.
The consequences of this are low self-esteem and disaffection from school for the majority and disruptive or violent behaviour for a significant minority of young people.
Added to this, a major factor compounding education system difficulties at the current time is that countries are still recovering from the COVID pandemic, which has resulted in schooling being severely disrupted and many families experiencing economic hardship and social isolation.
As a consequence, children and young people are currently growing up in extremely stressful and challenging environments and are more likely to experience strong emotions such as anger, anxiety and depression that some of them will be unable to control.
This makes them more likely to engage in disruptive and violent behavior, including self-harm and suicide.
Because children are more vulnerable at this time it is more important than ever to make their experiences at school as supportive and encouraging as possible. Although unlikely to affect the current situation, the education reforms that are now being considered in Barbados will provide opportunities for positive change and the possibility of a better future. However, to bring about meaningful change, the reforms need to be comprehensive and to focus on:
• changing schooling in Barbados from a competitive and divisive experience to an equitable and empowering one;
• changing summative assessments, such as the Common Entrance Exam used to decide on schools attended, to formative assessments for identifying strengths to be built on and weaknesses to be remediated;
• changing not addressing students’ learning difficulties to having special needs policy and procedures in every school that ensure all students get the help they need;
• changing having all students follow a mainly academic curriculum to also teaching personal and social education and providing vocational and technical education options;
• changing keeping parents at arms’ length to involving parents both at school and at home in their children’s education;
• changing using punishment to manage student behaviour to using rewards for appropriate behaviour within whole school behaviour programs that include parental involvement.
The first and most important change to make is to abandon the Common Entrance Exam (CEE) and replace it with a system of geographical zoning for allocating students to secondary schools.
With zoning, students will attend their local primary school and move on to the secondary school nearest to where they live, thereby doing away with the need for selection using the CEE, as well as the hours spent traveling to and from school each day, as well as the need for parents to take their children outside of their communities to primary schools with reputations for getting good results in the CEE.
This zoning system will require making sure that all secondary schools are equally well resourced and provide a similarly excellent education. Since teachers in Barbados are well qualified and locally trained this is clearly possible if they are provided with ongoing support and training on the teaching of children with a wide range of abilities and needs.
A way to facilitate this change would be to introduce a sixth-form college. For example, Harrison College, say, would only enrol students in their sixth-form years undertaking advanced level courses. Other secondary schools would enrol students in forms one through five.
Students would then get into the sixth-form college based on their passes and grades in the CXC examinations taken at the end of the ifth form year.
All of the remaining government secondary schools will have their own geographical zones from which they draw their students. These can be drawn up to ensure that schools enrol similar numbers of students and that each secondary school represents as diverse a socioeconomic population
Compensatory mechanisms can be used to allocate additional resources to schools that have disproportionate levels of pupils from poorer backgrounds, as is done in other countries. One of the advantages of this system is that children would have five times greater chance of attending Harrison College than they do now, even though just for two years, since this decision is made at age 16 based on CXC results rather than at age 11 based on the results of just one examination, so would be a much more equitable system.
Without the CEE, the focus of primary and secondary schools would become making every school an excellent one that brings out the best in every student that attends.
Schools will be able to use formative assessment, sometimes known as criterion referenced testing, to assess students’ strengths and weaknesses. This will help primary schools to identify students who need additional help to learn literacy and numeracy skills, as well as those who are gifted who would benefit from extension activities.
In addition to teaching academic skills, including reading, writing and mathematics, primary school teachers will then be able to focus more on personal and interpersonal skill development through teaching social and emotional learning programs.
In this way they will be able to focus on the development of the so-called soft skills, including teamwork, communication, conflict resolution and problem-solving skills, that are necessary for having positive relationships with others and for being successful at work.
Also, teachers will be able to use strategies such as Circle Time and peer support programs to create positive learning environments that prevent disruptive and violent behaviour.
Schools can also put into place anti-bullying and positive mental health programs that promote non-violent conflict resolution. All of these measures will help students develop constructive interpersonal skills and help prevent disruptive and violent behaviour.
Another important aspect of education reform is that, in addition to teaching academic subjects, secondary schools need to place greater emphasis on technical and vocational education by making these attractive alternative options during the later stages of secondary schooling.
While all students will study mainly academic subjects with some technical/vocational courses in the first few years of secondary schooling, they should be allowed to opt whether to follow a curriculum focused on more vocational education, studying for Caribbean Vocational Qualifications, during their fourth and fifth form years.
This more vocationally focused option would be available alongside the academically focused curriculum taken by students aiming to sit Caribbean Examination Council examinations. So, whereas students following an academic program and sitting CXCs would be aiming to go on to sixth form college and then university, those following the vocational route to prepare for taking CVQs would be aiming to go on to institutions such as community college, polytechnic or hospitality school, or aiming to leave school at age 16 years to get jobs.
A further important component of the needed education reform is the implementation of a national policy and effective practices for the education of children with special educational needs and disabilities.
Having effective special needs policy and procedures in place would enable teachers to address children’s learning difficulties, gifts and talents, and ensure that all children develop to their maximum potential.
Specifically, the education system needs to implement effective policy and procedures for educating children with various levels of learning or behavioural challenges.
A national policy on special and inclusive education needs to be backed up by specific education legislation for children with special educational needs and disabilities and implemented through guidelines for schools on how to teach such children.
All schools need to have qualified learning support coordinators
and there should be initial and in-service training for all teachers on teaching children with special needs. In addition to guidance counsellors
in all secondary schools, there should be social workers available to primary schools.
There also needs to be a team of educational psychologists employed by the Ministry of Education for assessing children’s needs and helping schools with program planning, as well as a parent-partnership service to provide guidance and support for families who have children with special needs or disabilities.
As is often said, ‘It takes a village to raise a child’. Therefore, an essential aspect of education reform that will reduce disruptive behaviour and school violence and develop more constructive behaviours, is making every school an important part of the community to which it belongs. This means making every school a community school.
Then all children will attend their local primary school and go on to attend their nearest secondary school. With all children attending their local schools, communities will be more able, along with parents, extended family members and teachers, to share in the task of supporting the education of children living in their communities.
It will involve having respected members of the community, such as church and community leaders, as well as parents of children attending the school, on each school’s governing body, along with the principal and teacher representatives.
Since parental engagement is essential to the effective education and social development of young people, all schools need to work hard to involve as many as possible of the parents and families of their students in the education of their children. Parents need to see themselves, and be seen by teachers, as partners with schools in the education of their children.
One way to start this process is to invite parents of each new intake of students to come with their child to a meeting at the school, with the principal and teachers, at which it is made clear what parents can do
to support the school in educating their children and what teachers will do to help parents in doing this.
Home visits by the principal/guidance counselor/social worker should be made to any parents who do not attend and to homes of students who are found to be having difficulties. Continued high levels of parental involvement can be maintained by using student-led parent-teacher meetings to review progress at least once a year and establishing regular communication between teachers and parents.
Finally, we cannot expect to reduce violence in schools if ‘flogging’ is used as a means of disciplining students. Using violent means to discipline students sends the wrong message and provides a bad example to our young people.
We need to promote non-violent approaches to discipline and conflict resolution, as well as having anti-bullying programs to promote positive relationships within schools.
Therefore, schools need to implement whole-school behaviour policies that develop a range of alternative strategies for managing behaviour, especially those involving parents. With increased involvement of parents, families and communities in schools, discipline will be maintained by the use of approaches such as parent-teacher meetings and home-school behaviour programs.
In these ways, schools will provide positive examples of non-violent means of solving conflicts that will contribute to the development of confident children with appropriate behaviour both at school and at home and in society in general.
Garry Hornby has worked as a secondary school teacher, educational psychologist and university lecturer in England, New Zealand and Barbados. He is now an Emeritus Professor of Education, living in Barbados and can be contacted on: firstname.lastname@example.org