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Evidence of Universal Secondary Education at work


by: S. Joel Warrican, Ph.D.


In September 2000, at a World Summit, world leaders committed to what are now referred to as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). These eight, time-bound goals were to be achieved by 2015.{{more}} Of note is that the first two of these goals relate to the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger and the achievement of universal primary education. These two goals are somewhat related since it has long been established that education facilitates economic advancement. Access to education allows citizens to pursue economic activity that contributes to improvement of their personal circumstances and the overall growth of their country. Hence, it is no wonder that these were the first two goals on the list adopted by the delegates at that meeting.

But when these goals were set, unlike many of the developing countries, the countries of the Commonwealth Caribbean had already achieved universal primary education for several decades, and a few (Barbados, The Bahamas, St. Kitts/Nevis and the British dependencies) even had universal secondary education in place. Thus, those countries that had not yet done so, boldly set goals to move to the next level: universal secondary education. This move on the part of these countries seems laudable. It can be argued that if universal primary education is expected to contribute to improved economic conditions, then universal secondary education (USE) could produce a multiplier effect, increasing the chances of economic development. St. Vincent and the Grenadines was one of the countries that embraced the idea of USE and thus, in 2005, a decision was made to offer this provision to the nation’s children.

The move towards USE in SVG and other countries in the region has come under fire from some who argue that this provision is wasted on some students who are considered not “bright” enough to make good use of it, and they lack the aptitude to cope with secondary education. Unfortunately, some of these critics are teachers! The misfortune here lies in the fact that a nation’s teachers should be the ones championing education for all, recognizing that all children can learn given the appropriate approaches and strategies. In an ideal world, one would expect that all students embarking on secondary education would have already mastered the skills needed to succeed at this level. The fact is though, that in the real world, this is not the case. Does this mean that these students should be denied this opportunity? The answer is linked to people’s perception of the purpose of secondary education and their understanding of the benefits that can be had from this experience.

There are different perspectives on the nature of secondary education. One of these suggests that students should only be allowed to move on to this level of learning after mastering pre-set knowledge and skills. This perspective seems to be the one to which most critics of USE subscribe. Their argument is that there is a fixed body of knowledge and skills to be acquired at the secondary level and the task of such schools is to ensure that students gracing their halls do so in a prescribed time. This they argue can only happen if students entering these schools come with the prerequisite knowledge and skills. An opposing perspective suggests that, for social and psychological reasons, students should move through the various levels of education with their age peers. Any deficiencies in knowledge and skills should then be addressed through appropriate educational programmes delivered in whichever institution the students are attending. This is the perspective to which proponents of USE uphold.

If the first perspective guides the decision as to whether or not students are allowed to enter secondary school, many students will be denied access to this provision. This is borne out by previous practice where students were selected to attend secondary school based on their “passing” an examination that was deemed to indicate mastery of the aforementioned prerequisite knowledge and skills. Those students who were deemed to have failed that examination were excluded from secondary education and labeled as ill-equipped to benefit from this level of study. The evidence though does not seem to support this view. Let us examine some of that evidence.

The first cohort of students who benefited from USE entered secondary school in 2005. This year, after five years, many of them wrote the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) examinations administered by the CXC. As one would expect, the students who traditionally would have entered secondary school (prior to USE) generally did very well, passing in some cases, upward of 7 subjects. But of note are those students who, before USE, would not have had the opportunity to study at this level. These are students who averaged less than 50 percent on the Common Entrance Examination in 2005. The table below shows the number of students who, prior to USE, would have “failed” the CEE in 2005, but who, under USE, entered secondary school and passed examinations in 2010. These are the students who traditionally, would have been described as not bright enough and too lacking in the requisite knowledge and skills to benefit from secondary education.

Some may argue that the numbers are relatively small, and that may be true. But this was accomplished for the most part in only five years, the same number of years that it takes the traditional intake of students. Furthermore, there is the possibility of more of these students passing secondary level examinations in June 2011 and hence qualifying for employment and higher education opportunities. The fact is that students are different and learn at different rates. Not all of them may qualify to write examinations after only five years of secondary education, but given enough time and strategic programmes, the majority of them can succeed at some level.

The results for the first cohort of students who benefited from USE shows that students who may have “failed” the CEE can benefit academically from secondary education. But perhaps what is even more crucial is the benefit to their social and psychological development. There is enough evidence to suggest that keeping students with their age peers contributes to the development of positive feelings about themselves as worthwhile beings and that this can transfer to their academic performance, contributing to improved performances in that sphere. It is true that not all students will excel with ease, but with the appropriate programmes in place at the secondary level, all students can experience a measure of success that can contribute to their making positive contributions to their society, and doing so excellently, in whatever role they find themselves. It must be remembered that the goal of education is not only to cultivate academic prowess, but to produce well-rounded citizens, capable of using whatever talent they have for their own positive development and for that of their nation, and in our case, the region.

Dr. Warrican is the Director of the St. Vincent and the Grenadines Community College.