I have patiently read and listened to the arguments that have been presented by all parties concerned in the conversation that addresses an appropriate date for students to sit the Secondary Entrance Assessment (SEA) examinations.
I have listened to the arguments forwarded by the National Primary Schools Principals’ Association (NPSPA), the Trinidad and Tobago Unified Teacher’s Association (TTUTA), the Ministry of Education and even parents. Despite reading and listening to all the points of view, I remain in a quandary.
The ones most affected by this conversation are our children, the ones in whom we should be making our greatest investment; and rather than sit together to consider all the variables before any final decision is made, there appears to be arrogance on the part of the decision-makers that are of no value to those most affected.
From NPSPA, I get the feeling that their agreement with the date set by the Ministry is all about the money, the $900.00 per day which the principals would be paid. Let it be known that the country does not buy the rhetoric about their concern for the children of this nation.
To also state that the payment signals to them that the Government values teachers’ vacation as a reason to support the Minister is also invalid since what is of importance and what should be our only consideration should be what is best for our children.
From TTUTA, one can deduce that their decision is predicated on flawed reasoning mainly to protect their right not to teach during their school vacation; rights which were determined at a Special Tribunal of the Industrial Court many years ago. That determination did not take the extenuating circumstances of COVID-19 into account.
The public is not fooled by TTUTA; and no one accepts their so-called concern for the children, because there is no additional benefit if the students are taught for one month from July to August or one month from September to October. One month is one month and so the teachers’ argument and their decision not to come out to teach in July holds no validity and provides no added benefit for the children of our nation.
Parents are desperate
Parents, on the other hand, are simply desperate, and rightly so. They witness first-hand, the trauma their children experience. They watch them every single day, stressed out, not knowing when they would be called upon to do this assessment. For the parents, they want this exam to be “done and dusted”. It is as simple as that. Their decision to align with the Minister of Education is predicated on expediency and not a true consideration of all the factors that would impact on their children.
The Minister of Education, like the parents, wants this exam to be completed as quickly as possible, but he does not have the luxury of expediency that the parents manifest. He should be taking into consideration how the curricula will be affected, how to protect the smooth transitioning from primary to secondary school to which we have grown accustomed, and how to compensate for that window of three months during which parents would normally acquire revenue to purchase school books for their children.
I am not going to sit here and pretend that the stakeholders are not faced with a major challenge caused by COVID-19 because serious problems are trying to reconcile the intellectual disengagement suffered by our children.
During that period students from low-income families are the ones who suffer the most, especially since many of their parents were forced to stay at home. Many would not have yet received social grants from the government, so to a large cross-section, their immediate need is sustenance, not education. Immediately, one sees the uneven playing field caused by this disengagement.
What is worse is that a process was put in place which was not beneficial to the lower class who could not take advantage of the distance learning mechanisms simply because a large number have no access to computers or similar devices. An even larger cross-section had no access to Wi-Fi and, also, while the wealthier students had access to extra tutelage, many children from already disadvantaged communities and households were left behind.
Intellectual disengagement has challenges of its own. There is virtually very little that could be done to reach a level of isostasy for the children who are at a disadvantage.
One would have thought that TTUTA would have considered these mitigating circumstances, especially since their vacation started way earlier than the normal July arrangement, and in the best interest of the children recommend an earlier date for their return to the classroom.
The stress of the children
A compromise should have been made to allow the children to return to school on July 1 and the exam to be set for October 20, to allow the teachers sufficient time to reorient our children back into an academic setting if they were so concerned about the welfare of our children.
The 20 million-dollar carrot dangled by the Minister of Education would have made a little more sense as the contact hours would have increased and some measure of equity for the disadvantaged would have been introduced into the discussion. Under those circumstances, no one would have begrudged the $900 per day which the school Principals would have earned.
Regrettably, the conversation is not about the children, not even about the stakeholders. This is what is disturbing because the date setting is not even the conversation that these educators should be having.
All educators know that the purpose of any form of assessment is to test knowledge retention and transfer it in a way that is valid, reliable and standardized. This is the first class of students who are disadvantaged because of uncertainty concerning the date for their assessment. There is a psychological fallout that is bound to manifest in some of our students and no one seems concerned enough to speak about that.
I am yet to hear how these educators propose to deal with the stress that is sure to come from hurrying our children to digest large amounts of information which they will be expected to regurgitate sometime between July and who knows exactly when. Our learned educators have not placed that on the table for consideration.
Not even the Minister of Education has positioned the ill effects of content ingestion which will affect memory and the building of understanding.
Yet he wants us to believe that he has our children’s interest at heart!
I want to know whether the exams are going to take into consideration the fact that the curriculum was incomplete and whether an agreement was made as to how the exams will be set to accommodate this phenomenon. Has there been any conversation on how to modify the curriculum to suit the adjusted term?
It is painful with all the challenges to listen to our educators. Rather than spend 20 million dollars on the teachers as a stipend, I was hoping that someone would have directed the Minister to use this money to provide books for these “new normal” children or to improve access to digital devices if this is a proposed new mode of delivery of education.
Parents would start saving money from June to August to buy their children’s books but they were out of jobs, locked down at home, no income was forthcoming, no pandemic or any other grant. Our educators for once did not even put the interests of our children above their selfish greed.
What is the supervisory arrangement for these students after they have completed this exam in August or October and how long will they have to remain at home before the SEA results are declared?
How will that be organised since parents will be back out to work and elder siblings will be back out to school? Are we thinking and making plans to treat with this social impact?
I am appalled at the lack of preparedness of the Ministry, the greed of the principals and the selfishness of our teachers – the collective education system – and its inability to identify the real issues impacting on education for our children.
Sacrifices have to be made and my only hope is that whatever is decided does not become a source of frustration that would lead to further truancy and delinquent behaviour from which we may never recover.
COVID-19 has unearthed many cracks in our country, including in education.