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On a parent’s right to ask questions of Educational officials

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Editor:

MY PURPOSES

I have reflected carefully on writing this letter to your newspaper as a parent (Ralph Gonsalves simpliciter, not Prime Minister) of my 15-year-old daughter, Soleil, who attends the Girls’ High School (GHS) and who has just completed her Fourth Form. This letter is written for the following four purposes: To reaffirm my right as a parent to ask questions of the educational authorities on any matter touching and concerning my daughter’s education;{{more}} to state simply the query which I raised some three or four weeks ago to the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Education regarding the sanctioned rules, if any, under which students at the GHS or any other secondary school in St. Vincent and the Grenadines are awarded zero in internal examinations in a paper for the infringement of possessing a cell-phone in the exam room; to correct the lies, falsehoods, and misinformation, most of it inspired for malignant political purposes against me; and to make a few general comments on some related educational issues.

FACTS OF MY INVOLVEMENT AS A PARENT

My involvement in this matter arose, and can be gleaned, from the following facts:

1. Three or four weeks ago, my daughter Soleil informed me that she was given the grade of zero in one of her two Maths exams because her cell-phone went off in the exam room when the exam paper was being circulated. The teacher/invigilator confiscated the phone and informed her that she would get zero but would nevertheless be permitted to write the exam. This Math Exam carries 60 marks; the second Maths Exam carries 100 marks. An aggregate percentage of both papers is thus calculated for the student’s final grade for Maths.

My immediate reaction was to show no sympathy for her situation. I know that the GHS has a “zero tolerance” policy on cell phones in school; and I told her that. However, she made the persuasive point by asking rhetorically: “Does ‘zero tolerance’ on having a cell-phone in school mean a zero for exams when no such rule was told to the students?” She elaborated further by affirming that CXC has the “zero rule” for its exams but that CXC informs students of the rule at registration and reminds them at the start of every exam. I remained silent in the face of her persuasive logic. I reflected for two or so days on the matter. I said nothing during this time to anyone about it. Finally, I concluded that as a parent I had the right to raise a pertinent query to the educational authorities.

2. Accordingly, I telephoned the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Education, Mrs. Nicole Bonadie-Baker, on the matter. I told her that I was calling as a parent and not as Prime Minister. I relayed the facts of my complaint as stated above and asked simply about the existence of sanctioned rules in the GHS, or any other secondary school, governing cell-phones in exams. I made no other request of the Permanent Secretary. I gave no instructions or offered any guidance. I did not make any report or call on the matter to the Minister, the Chief Education Officer, or the Headmistress of GHS. The Permanent Secretary is the Ministry’s Administrative Head, and it is to that office that I thought my oral query ought to be addressed. A day or two after I spoke to the Permanent Secretary, the Chief Education Officer called to inform me that the matter of which I had complained (as a parent) was being addressed by her.

NON-EXISTENCE OF SANCTIONED RULES

I have subsequently been informed that there have been communications between the Ministry’s officials and the Headmistress of the GHS. I am not privy to those communications. However, I have since learnt that there are internal GHS rules on this matter but these have never been sanctioned by the Ministry of Education as is required. As a parent I do not know of the “internal GHS rules”; neither does Soleil; nor does her mom.

Clearly, rules can only have validity if the following basic conditions are met: The rules must pass the test of reasonableness; the rules must be transparent, in that the school or the Ministry must communicate them to the parents, students, and general public; the rules must be sanctioned by the requisite authority; and the rules must be consistently applied.

THE WAY FORWARD

If the sanctioned rule is that my daughter is to be awarded “zero” in one of her two Maths Exams, then so be it. Still, the other considerations relevant to a valid rule remain alive. All I personally wanted to know were the following: whether the rules exist; what they are; were they communicated to parents and students; and were they sanctioned. I am sure other parents would like to know the answers to these queries. Some of their children have perhaps even suffered from the application of non-sanctioned rules.

If the decision is to apply the CXC rules and protocols, then so be it. I personally have no quarrel with the CXC rules and protocols but with amendments to take account of one important consideration: The CXC Exams are terminal exams; internal secondary school exams are non-terminal and thus transitional in the school system. So, for example, if a fourth-former at GHS is awarded “zero” in her final third term exam in a subject, does it mean that it carries the additional penalty or burden that the student would not be permitted to take that subject in Fifth Form and at CXC. Such a rule cannot be reasonable. Thus, we must clarify all these, and other issues in the rules.

Let me hasten to add that my daughter was in no danger of being excluded from taking Maths in her Fifth Form. She is a good Math student, thus far. Indeed, when she knew that she was getting “zero” in one paper because of her cell-phone, she quietly assured me that she would more than make-up in the next paper and so attain a passing grade. This she did! I thank Almighty God for blessing her.

CLOSING COMMENTS

I make a few closing comments. Lots of people would not believe the pressure which my children, especially my daughters, have had to endure at schools in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, especially at GHS, often from some teachers who have acted unprofessionally towards them because of the jaundiced politics of these teachers. I have to teach my children to be strong. I neither demand nor require any special treatment for them. But they ought never to be disadvantaged because of who their father is. It is wrong. And it is wrong of those who choose to go public with jaundiced views and untruths on a matter in which I have acted properly as a parent.

Generally, in our schools, I find that “teachable moments” are too easily turned into “disciplinary moments”. Does any serious educator think that such a “turning” helps anyone? Education requires discipline but it is not a power relationship of any kind. It ought to be about developing creative, fully-rounded, skilled personalities fit to receive and transmit universal culture, with a Caribbean particularity. Students must never feel that they are entering a hostile or combative environment. All teachers, administrators, and parents ought to bear this in mind.

If my query causes the Ministry, in conjunction with all secondary schools, to fashion and sanction viable rules for cell-phones in exams, the pain which my daughter and I have endured on this issue would have been worth it.

This matter is much larger than my daughter, but I would be a strange, dysfunctional person if I were to be deeply moved about the welfare of 30,000 students (primary, secondary, post-secondary and special) in St. Vincent and the Grenadines in my capacity as Prime Minister, yet show no concern as a father for my daughter! And in this matter I have acted properly and reasonably! Shame on all those who chose to traduce and vilify me on a matter in which I have done no wrong. Frankly, these people need to grow up.

Ralph E. Gonsalves
Parent

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