Last week Tuesday the Ministry of Education and Culture in conjunction with the World Bank staged a Conference on Secondary Education focused on the issues of expanding access to secondary education and improving its quality. The Conference was not only well attended but stimulated a considerable about good ideas from the participants. I was impressed by the fact that the Ministers, Permanent Secretary, Chief Education Officer and most of the top officials attended and participated for the entire day.
The World Bank presented a Study on Secondary Education that while not proposing many new ideas contained a wealth of data on the education system and some very interesting analyses. As I listened to the wealth of ideas proposed from the various discussion groups, I wondered where were the resources going to come from to implement them. The harsh reality is that we are not short of ideas for both expanding access to secondary education or improving its quality. We are short of resources. In inevitably hard choices will have to be made.
It is with this in mind that I took issue with the proposal by the Government, endorsed by the World Bank, to begin to put every child of secondary school age into school beginning in September 2002. While the projected date is more than three years away unless something very unexpected happens I cannot see the country being in a position to implement such a policy.
Universal secondary education is one of the educational policy goals that has emerged in the twentieth century, particularly in the industrialised countries. However, in many instances, that policy has created as many problems as it has solved. Keeping all children in school to age 17 or 18 years, is not the same thing as providing them with secondary education. For students to benefit from secondary education they must have achieved at least a functional mastery of primary education. The transfer of students to secondary education without a working knowledge of the fundamentals frustrates both students and teachers and undermines public confidence in the school system.
From my perspective, the policy goals for secondary education over the next five to seven years should be a modest expansion of access combined with major initiatives to improve the present quality. In specific terms I would recommend the following:
- Making merit the sole criterion for transferring students from primary to secondary schools.
- Transferring to secondary schools every student from the primary level that has achieved a functional mastery of the primary curriculum. Currently, this would be about 70 percent of students.
- Retaining those who have not mastered the fundamentals in tops of All Age schools until they have attained the desired level of competence in the fundamentals, then make the transfer to secondary schools.
- Linking the future and further expansion of access to secondary schools to improvements in the effectiveness of primary education.
- Through the community colleges and evening classes at high schools, using both faces to face and distance education, develop programmes whereby adults beyond the age of 17 years can obtain a secondary education.
- Mounting a major initiative to improve the quality of secondary education by:
- Upgrading secondary school teachers to the level whereby at least 75 percent hold Bachelor degrees.
- Continuing and expanding the ROSE Reforms in teaching methods to include all subjects and all grades in secondary education.
- Strengthening and expanding the use of information technology in management and instruction and collaboration among teachers and students.
- Expanding welfare support to needy students.
- Introducing measures to ensure that at least 80 percent of school time is devoted to instruction in the Curriculum.
- Mainstreaming technology so that it is a part of every student’s general education.
- Diversifying the Grades 10 and 11 curriculum to include sports and the performing arts as mainstream subjects.
- Targeting the newly converted high schools as a first priority in implementing the various initiatives.
- Rationalising the institutional basis on secondary education so that the present four types of secondary schools are reduced to one.
- Removing specific vocational training from the secondary school curriculum.
Given the limitations on our resources, the pressing need is not for a lot of new school buildings to house increased numbers of students. Rather, it is for measures that will improve the quality of the education being delivered to those who have made the best use of the opportunities afforded them. I am of the conviction that the best interests of the poor and dispossessed are served by an education that uses merit and performance as its major criterion.
Fortunately, when God was distributing talents and abilities He did not give them according to social class. The goals of equity and social justice are far better served by giving the majority of students a sound education of quality than by attempting to give every child a little something that can barely be called education.