Some Challenges in Post-Colonial Secondary Education

(By William J. Carter)

ONE OF THE gauges that one can use to assess the value that societies place on education is the quantum allocated in the annual National Budget. If we were to use this as the only indicator, Trinidad and Tobago has Education as its highest priority, allocating TT $9.8 billion out of a total of $61.4 billion (Health was awarded 5 billion and National Security $6.5), Guyana also placed education as its main priority for many years and in 2013 it spent G$28 billion of its G$177.4 billion budget on this sector.

This follows a post-colonial trend of all the governments in power starting with the oft-quoted exhortation of the First Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Dr Eric Williams to school children at an Independence rally in 1962 where he told them that they carried “the future of Trinidad and Tobago in their school bags”.

There followed a concerted effort to widen and broaden Secondary Education in particular (though not exclusively). The elitist and exclusivist system of very limited state-paid ‘scholarships’ to the few existing Secondary schools was slowly but surely dismantled by a “Common Entrance Exam” taken at the end of the Primary cycle (also referred to as the “Eleven-Plus”).

But there continued to be the element of ‘elitism’ as parents were given the choice of Secondary School their offspring would attend and these choices were (and still are) determined by the mark obtained in the exam. Naturally the longer-established (often owned and governed by boards connected with religious bodies) were and are considered the ‘elite’ or ‘prestige’ ‘first choice’ options.

This has set up a vicious circle which the more recently established government schools have found hard to break: the ‘prestige’ schools get the better students, if they are ‘denominational’, have greater choice and control over their teaching staff (though technically all come from the same pool) and on the empirical evidence of final exam results (both at CSEC and CAPE level) achieve and maintain higher exam standards. It is extremely difficult to see how this status quo can be changed as long as the placement process is oligarchic. There continues to be extreme anxiety over this placement exam now called the SEA (Secondary Entrance Assessment) with parents with means choosing private primary schools and/or extra lessons in an attempt to guarantee the ‘gold standard’ of the ‘first-choice’.

Recent attempts by the Curriculum division of the Education Department to broaden the focus of the curriculum (instead of ‘drill for an exam’) and reduce anxiety through the use of ‘portfolio’ and ‘continuous’ assessment are proving to be a minefield since the stakes are so high and the conditions and facilities of schools in the Primary system are quite unequal.

The Secondary school curriculum throughout the English-speaking CARICOM region is governed by what I consider to be possibly the only undisputed triumph of the integration movement in the Caribbean (CSME/CARICOM) – the Caribbean Examination Council (CXC) and its examination system (CSEC and CAPE) .

Set up in the mid-70s to replace the British-based system of external examinations, it has taken over all the disciplines and in the 90’s both the ‘fifth-form’ (CSEC) and ‘sixth-form’ levels. Driven by the most modern Measurement and Evaluation principles from the beginning, (for example the principle of a “School-based assessment component”), it has garnered the skills of professionals in Education both at the University level and in the trenches of Secondary Schools throughout the region and has set up a most laudable system of curriculum development, assessment and exam administration.

Though headquartered in Barbados it has sought involvement throughout the region from all the sources that can be of assistance to its task.

In Trinidad and Tobago, the major challenge up to the Form Five level is, I feel, the bias of the curriculum in the majority of schools towards the ‘academic’…meaning ‘technical and vocational’ training and certification e.g. ’woodwork’, ‘motor mechanics’, ‘metal work’ have very largely disappeared from schools’ departments particularly with the elimination of the “Junior Secondary” (which used to be a three-year school) followed by the “Senior Comprehensive” (two more years leading to CSEC level and possibly a small ‘advanced level’ group).

This has left a significant proportion of the school population de-motivated and disinclined to any real effort at studies. Added to which, the Ministry of Education, without explaining clearly the change in philosophy (at least not in any public campaign), have been tinkering with the system.

There was a decision to abandon “Junior Secs” and “Comprehensives” and convert all schools into either five-year or seven-year schools. They have also experimented arbitrarily, and, from reports coming from teachers involved, creating many challenges thereby, with ‘single-sex’ schools, converting a mixed-school system into some ‘single-sex’ schools.

One gets the impression that many of the decisions mentioned above were done without carefully considering any relevant research findings, certainly without any public campaign explaining the reasons, and very often seemingly for political gains in the narrowest sense – “It will look good”.. A prime example of this is the current scheme to give laptop computers to all Form One students.

Very few of the current teaching personnel are “digital natives”, some aren’t even “digital immigrants” and the impact this very expensive adventure as far as pedagogical usefulness and heightened interest in learning is, in many minds, minimal.

There is though at the Secondary level what is to me a rather intriguing phenomenon; the ‘super student’. This manifests itself in the sitting and passing of large numbers of CSEC subjects with distinctions.

This seems to be a peculiarly Guyanese phenomenon – in 2012 Abram’s Zuil student Sarah Hakh won the award for the Most Outstanding Candidate in the region, she gained 16 grade ones with all As on the profile grades. Last year, Yogeeta Persaud of Anna Regina Secondary

School captured the same award with 18 Grade ones while her fellow peer Zimeena Rasheed who wrote 20 subjects and gained 18 grade ones copped the award for the Most Outstanding Candidate in Technical/ Vocational Education.*

Of note is that Guyanese students dominate the Regional Top Awards for outstanding performances at the CSEC, while students from Trinidad and Tobago continued their dominance of awards for outstanding performances at the CAPE.

Five of the eight awards for CSEC went to students from Guyana, while nine of the ten awards for CAPE went to students from Trinidad and Tobago.

It would be interesting for readers especially those in Guyana to provide an explanation of this phenomenon, which by the way does not recur at the CAPE level where Trinidad, and occasionally Jamaica, tends to have the top students.

A final remark: I am not convinced that the male section of the school population is achieving anything near its academic potential at these final examinations. You may have noticed that the Guyanese ‘super students’ have been female and the schools that dominate the “Open Schol” awards in Trinidad (“Open schols” are awarded to the very top performers at CAPE) are single-sex female schools.

The young males seem far more interested in achieving mastery at FIFA XIV®, Grand Theft Auto® and Warcraft® and becoming armchair experts on the Barclays Premier League®, La Liga® and the European Championship League® where their mastery of the statistics and knowledge of the ‘stars’ never ceases to amaze me… How can Shakespeare, Heidegger’s uncertainty principle or the intricacies of macro-economics compete?

William Carter has been an educator for decades and is the former principal of the Queen’s Royal College in Trinidad & Tobago.


(* Editor’s Note/Addendum: This piece was written earlier this year before the 2014 CSEC results were released. However, the phenomenon of the super-student Mr Carter refers to continued with the results this year. With the announcement of the 2014 CSEC results, Elisa Hamilton of Queen’s College Secondary emerged as the top student in Guyana, gaining 19 grade ones and a grade two. Larissa Whiltshire and Bharti Bhoge tied for second with seven grade ones each. Mr. William Carter’s interest in the super-student phenomenon is a larger indication of educator’s questioning of the state of the secondary education system. Increasingly it seems to be one where the top students at CSEC write an increasingly massive amount of subjects with excellent results suggesting an increased improvement of secondary education, whilst the gap between the very high performing 1% top students continues to grow.

This creates an ever-growing chasm between those very high performers and the rest of the students writing CSEC in Guyana; those not at the more elite schools who continue to perform average, or below, average in key subject areas. Should our eyes be trained on the few super students at the top or the mass of students writing six or seven subjects and struggling to pass them? Should the system’s success be judged by those at the top or the multitudes at the bottom?)




  1. This article raises some interesting, important points for discourse; yet, the responses are non-existent. Where we host a dialogue, is as vital as the dialogue we host. In saying that, there is much that needs to be addressed in the Guyanese Education system. When there’s a system in place that keeps schools from competing for the top position, we need to re-examine that system. When students are compelled by the system of “streaming” to only consider certain job, career and academic possibilities, we need to re-examine that system. When students who struggle academically are ousted, and made to feel less than human by those in charge of eliciting the best from them, we need to re-examine that system. It is all perfectly wonderful to gain the top awards at CSEC, but what are we doing for those students who are not academically inclined? Where are the institutions that should be allowing these students to take the technical/vocational subjects they are perhaps more capable or more desirous of thriving in? The fact that so many of our students drop off the grid after CSEC, instead of remaining visible during what should be the CAPE, and collegiate study years, or the years towards mastering a trade, or becoming the mentoree of an established individual in an industry that holds the student’s interest, is troubling to say the least.

  2. I want to comment on the question of why the success at CSEC does not translate to Cape success for our students. The difference between CSEC and CAPE is staggering. CAPE is much more demanding than CSEC. Properly prepared students should be able to adapt to the higher level of critical analysis, thinking and effort that is needed to push ahead at CAPE. However, with the drilling for exams and extra tutoring and after school lessons that are almost always necessary at CSEC (this is a whole different issue by it self), students develop lazy habits. As a result, rather than honing their study skills, critical thinking and discipline, they are now developing these tools in the more grueling CAPE environment. CAPE teachers are not very forgiving, as they should be.
    I was really good at CSEC math, did very well at the exam and was very ambitious about taking on both Cape and Edexcel math (all of them). I was well drilled in my preparation for CSEC math, but coming down to the end of the syllabus was told to not spend much time on these topics as you don’t need them for the exam. So I followed the advice passed really well and went onto Cape. First year I fell flat on my face with trigonometry and struggled with calculus. After much self teaching I passed overall. Later I realized that those topics I ignored were the base to trig and calculus. I know this is the sort of thing that many CAPE candidates experience.

Leave a Reply