Post 406.

What is our plan?

Given that “46,770 students at both primary and secondary level” have “never logged on to portals facilitating online learning,” according to the Ministry of Education, we have to ask ourselves what the impact will be in five years and ten years when primary schoolchildren reach adolescence, and those in secondary school become young adults.

School closures have impacted children’s access to food, mental health services and recreational activities. They have left children more vulnerable to witnessing or experiencing domestic violence and sexual abuse. Some children will recover, but a portion will never catch up; most likely those unable to cope with our approach to schooling and whose examination results already show low school-leaving skills.

In its August 2020 publication on Latin America and the Caribbean, “Education in a time of COVID-19,” ECLAC reports that “even before the pandemic hit, the social situation in the region was deteriorating, owing to rising rates of poverty and extreme poverty, the persistence of inequalities and growing social discontent.” Youth unemployment was high, hovering around 20 per cent in the region, and already considered to be eroding Caribbean young people’s psychological well-being, with young women experiencing higher rates of unemployment than young men.

Last year, the ILO also noted a lack of decent work opportunities combined with fair wages, social inclusion, social protection and labour rights. Young people were entering a world of insecure and informal work. The ILO warned that resulting discouragement and frustration can be linked to protests.

Think of those that happened last year in Port of Spain in relation to police brutality, but which were also combined with feelings of exclusion, joblessness, idleness and anger. Think of the fact that men who commit crimes tend to start young, including in terms of handling weapons, and consistently have literacy challenges.

In this context, the most important issue for an emerging generation is an expected increase in major gaps in educational outcomes, including for migrant children and children with disabilities. Rural children will also experience greater exclusion, and this is a group with typically high rates of primary school dropout in Victoria County and secondary school dropout in the county of Caroni.

We can expect decreased literacy rates, examination passes and certification. We can anticipate increased risk of criminal behaviour as illegal and informal livelihoods become accessible options, and we should expect higher vulnerability to conflict and violence among this generation.

For some of those children, such education gaps translate directly into risk of joining gangs, substance abuse, and incarceration for young men. They mean greater risk to sexual violence, early pregnancy, HIV and prostitution for young women. This isn’t happening to those with family and financial security or with internet and computer access, it’s happening to those children who were already most at risk because of an existing gap.

We have long known the effects of poor educational access and inclusion for children across the region. From Belize to Jamaica to Guyana, peace-building programmes all provide basic literacy and certification, life skills and conflict management, and livelihood options that offer alternatives to the illegal economy or dire, intergenerational poverty.

Missing school is correlated with higher rates of school dropout, and reduced lifetime earnings. What is ahead of us is also an impact on the national economy and GDP, which can deepen a recession and exact a long-term cost in both productivity and social cohesion.

I’m suggesting we plan now for how we are going to engage in risk prevention, treating the digital divide as an educational issue, but also an issue of peace and equality. If the global data suggests what I’ve described is a likely scenario, we can plan for five and ten years ahead, not waiting for adolescent pregnancy or crime to rise.

There’s an educational crisis that’s immediate, because tens of thousands of children have not accessed months of schooling, and have no increased capacity to do so in the near future. There are obvious remedial efforts required, and extensive support to parents which can enable them to protect and educate their children as much as those with access and privilege. It will be expensive to roll out a strategy targeting these students and their families. It will be more expensive, selfish and short-sighted not to.

We can plan now, knowing that these risks are real, and must be addressed. We are looking in the eyes of a potentially lost generation and these children are looking back at us, hoping we will commit to a solution.

Post 229.

I don’t remember being much of a good student in primary school. I was rarely in the top five, maybe once in a while in the top ten. I remember Common Entrance as terrifying. All I have in my head is a picture of sitting at a desk in a room full of wooden desks, with the bright light from a large window to my right and a ‘lucky’ stuffed toy we were allowed to bring with us in those days, perhaps mine was a white unicorn, in front of me, watching me writing, writing, writing until my hand hurt.

I passed for Bishops Anstey High School, while girls who usually had better marks than me, but didn’t survive that one exam as well as I had, cried and cried when results came out. It’s painful to think about even today, that pressure and those immense feelings of relief and failure, when we were so young. Nonetheless, I never attended high school in Trinidad, instead becoming a Queens College student in Barbados, and later attending three additional high schools in Canada. In all of these, I was undeniably, unremarkably average.

I don’t remember any passion for my subjects or any particular drive to do well.  I barely passed physics and chemistry. I feel I like was on automatic, doing school because that’s what adolescents do, not necessarily connecting to a compelling reason, plan or future. I was a reader, and I liked writing poetry, but I had no real hobbies or areas of excellence. My mother most likely despaired, wondering if I’d turn into a delinquent, while I got through reality from shifting locations in my own teenage dream world.

Adults are so different from children that we should reflect on whether they see the world, and our expectations of them, the way that we do. Their inability to connect to our standards and aspirations might not be a sign of present or future failing on their part. They are just growing at their idiosyncratic pace, and partially living in their own world.

Parental expectations can also be wholly unrealistic. We want our children to do well in all subjects as if it’s a national norm for adults to be great at eight separate things simultaneously. By the time we grow up, we accept that we might be better at art and math than biology or creative writing, but we scan report cards with that very measurement rule still in our minds.

Ziya’s only just started primary school, yet parents are already concerned about revising classwork in the afternoons and reviewing term material for assessments, producing a sit down and learn practice, and comparing the percentages that children get at the end of term. I believe in none of these. Afternoons are for self-directed learning, including play. Revising for assessments hides what was actually learned, or not, in class. Sitting still and memorizing book knowledge gives concepts that can be regurgitated without understanding of their applicability or meaning. Percentages are great for knowing how your child performs in assessments, but not whether she or he increasingly loves learning, which is a wide indicator of when students will do well.

Any time spent with our children will tell us how they best learn to think, question, apply and remember, and which skills they have mastered or are still developing. Parents’ job is not to follow the Ministry of Education curriculum, but to do whatever enjoyable activities help to strengthen our children’s’ capacities, without resorting to more school.

All this sounds like letting education slide, but I’m more concerned with our despair when children don’t excel early on. Not all can excel every year for their entire school lives. Not everyone’s academic performance will peak when they are children. They might finally find their feet in university, in a job or in a course that offers an alternative to traditional subjects. That was me.

I began to seriously excel at university, finally. A surprise to many, I ended up with three degrees, plus focus, discipline and ambition. My mother need not have been so worried, and perhaps as parents neither should we. That’s the lesson I now try to live with Zi.