BRIDGETOWN, Barbados– A ground-breaking study has found that up to 33 per cent of the children in secondary schools across the Eastern Caribbean are at risk of either dropping out or failing.
The report from the study, co-authored by lecturer in Social Studies Education in the School of Education at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Dr Verna Knight, and Director of the School of Education, Dr Babalola Ogunkola, also concluded that 17 per cent or just over 1,700 children at the primary level faced similar risks.
The 2017 study, ‘Global Initiative on Out of School Children: Eastern Caribbean’, was supported by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and Argentinian NGO Asociacion Civil Educación para Todos.
It analysed information on enrollment by age, grade, repeaters, dropouts and graduates from early childhood (4 years) and primary and secondary levels using data collected from administrative data units in ministries of education in Antigua & Barbuda, Dominica, Grenada, St Kitts and Nevis, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines and the Turks and Caicos Islands for the periods 2012-2013 and 2013-2014.
The study centred on a framework designed by UNICEF and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Institute for Statistics that highlighted two general categories for exclusion – present or total exclusion (children who are out of school), and potential or partial exclusion (children who are enrolled in school but not engaged at the school level).
This was then divided into five dimensions of exclusion – children of early childhood age who were not in the school system, children who were of primary school age but were not in school, children of secondary school age but were not enrolled in primary or secondary school; children of primary school age and are enrolled but were at risk of dropping out or failing, and those of secondary school age who were enrolled but were also at risk of dropping out or failing.
The researchers found that 0.5 per cent of children of pre-school age (4+ years) were out of school completely, while this stood at 1.4 per cent (840) for primary school children and 3.3 per cent (over 1,000) for those of secondary school age.
“When we dug a little deeper into the notion of potential exclusion we saw that the exclusion begins as early as kindergarten. For example, when you look at the region we saw 8 per cent of the students were at least one year behind at kindergarten level. We saw this increase to 11 per cent at grade one level, 13 per cent at grade two level and 17 per cent at grade three level. By the time we got to form five, it was 38 per cent. This shows us that the problem is identifiable at the kindergarten level but when it’s not addressed it’s very difficult for those children to improve,” Dr Knight said.
The resultant effect was students starting to drop out of school as early as first form due to their inability to cope.
The study also concluded that boys were twice as impacted as girls, with repetition and dropout rates for boys standing at 8 per cent and 6 per cent respectively.
While data for the five-year period for the same cohort of males and females was absent, the scholars examined the number of students enrolled in first form compared to the number of them in fifth form, noting an overall 24 per cent decline.
“There was a 15 per cent loss for girls between first and fifth form compared to 32 per cent for the boys. This shows that the boys are most impacted by this exclusion, the first to drop out, most represented in the repetition classes, the suspension list, with discipline issues,” Dr Knight indicated.
Following a review of recently-conducted empirical studies, they arrived at 12 barriers to potential exclusion, which were later narrowed down to five, following consultation workshops with key interest groups in each country.
The main problems were: inadequate support for struggling learners, inadequate special needs provisions, negative teacher attitude towards academically weak students, weak academic performance and participation of boys, and low parental engagement and involvement in children’s education.
While the latter did not emerge as a factor at the early childhood level, poverty did.
“It wasn’t a surprise to find that teachers were reluctant to teach ‘weak’ students at the secondary level, but when we saw it emerging at the primary level and the early childhood level too it became a greater concern. If we are saying that potential exclusion begins at kindergarten level where we begin to see the gaps and this continues at primary school and into fifth form levels where it seems to widen then there’s need to bring those teachers together to ensure that their training and professional development are really addressed,” Dr Knight stated.
“Half of the teachers were untrained to begin with. Less than 50 per cent of the secondary school teachers across the region are certified as trained so they were untrained and there were these students coming in who couldn’t read, couldn’t write and they still had to teach them Principles of Business, Social Studies, History, the same curriculum. The performance level of the students began to fall in the subject areas and the teachers blamed the children and said ‘those students don’t belong here, they need to be kept in the same primary school or sent to a different type of secondary school or something’.
“It got so bad that some teachers don’t want to teach low performing students and the children were separated based on ability. What we found was that once the students went into a particularly stream [classes based on abilities] they continued in that stream throughout the entire schooling period, which have implications for their motivation, self-confidence and self-esteem,” she added.
An exhaustive list of recommendations have been put forward to remedy the deficiencies, including school outreach to parents, the development of stronger partnerships with families, the facilitation of parent orientation sessions so they could better understand their roles, parenting classes and more home visits by trained counsellors and teachers.
Additionally, the researchers suggest innovative changes to classroom instruction methods and teaching aids at primary and secondary school levels for children with problems learning.
For teachers with negative attitude towards academically weak students, they believe professional support should be provided targeting problem areas, the provision of mentorship for younger teachers, the introduction of bridging programmes to support children in the transition from primary to secondary school level and targeted support for children who repeat a class level.