Investigating Lower Primary Education

For every decade, an average of 90,000 pupils leave schools without the basic reading, writing and counting skills

At the risk of sounding repetitive, it must be said that failure to provide all our children with the most basic standard of literacy and numeracy remains the most challenging educational problem facing the nation. For several decades, our efforts to remedy this situation have been a failure and the tragic outcome hits us in the face every year when the results of primary schooling are out. While there has been no dearth of efforts and strategies to improve pupils’ performance, these have hardly made any impact on educational outcomes at the end of primary schooling.

There have been some signs of improvement here and there at times, but these positive outcomes have not been sustainable in the long term. While there is no magic solution to a problem that has plagued educationists for years, one should acknowledge that so long as the diagnosis is wrong, the solution will be wide off the mark. There is, therefore, a strong case for government to undertake an in-depth study of low performance in our primary schools and come up with strategies for a variegated educational landscape.

Every year, and for several decades, a large number of pupils fail to reach the minimum standard of literacy and numeracy at end of primary schooling. Take for example the year 2009: approximately 22,000 pupils sat for the CPE examination, and about 9000 did not attain the required standard. Even after a second sitting, only 180 pupils succeeded.

A simple calculation shows that for every decade, an average of 90,000 pupils leave schools without the basic reading, writing and counting skills. And if we were to extend this calculation to the period since independence, we would have produced some 450,000 CPE failures, and denied them their full rights as citizens in a democratic society. Remember that in the 1970s the number of pupils examined at the level of CPE was on average 30,000, and the pass rate was around 44 to 54%. Even if we were to make allowance for those who improved their educational level later as well as those who might have relapsed into illiteracy, this uneducated swathe of our population represents the failure of successive governments as well that of the nation.

It is certainly noteworthy that, since independence in 1968 and even earlier, all governments have invested a lot to improve performance at the level of primary education, based mostly on international research and policies. This has been a collaborative approach with the government itself, the private sector and NGOs working together on several projects, putting in more resources, material as well as human. Unfortunately the outcomes have been very modest, too modest to have any lasting impact on educational performance.

Lack of preparedness for primary education has led to the formalization of pre-primary learning under the Early Childhood Care and Education Authority. The idea that a mix of students of low socio-economic status and those of higher socio-economic status would improve overall performance resulted in the setting up of pre-vocational classes in State and other colleges. Other strategies have been pursued, albeit on an ad-hoc basis, in a number of schools, focusing on greater use of the mother tongue, improving reading and writing skills or modifying the curriculum. Overall these strategies have never been rigorously evaluated and did not result in any significant long-term achievements. The fact that overall CPE performance still revolves around 60-70% means we are wasting the talent and potential of 30-40% of our young people.

The 2016 CPE results remain disheartening. In one school 120 pupils take part in the examination and 40 pupils fail. Even in a school which has registered a 83.7% pass rate, there are 21 pupils who did not make the grade. In many schools the pass rate is 40% or even less. In some State, confessional and private colleges, the failure rate does not go down even after 7 or 8 years of schooling. One State college registers 18 students for CPE and all fail. In several colleges, whether they are State, confessional or private, the percentage pass is 0%.

The poor performance suggests a few conclusions. Problems of literacy and numeracy are best tackled at the primary level instead of the secondary, and at primary level resources and strategies should be deployed in the lower primary rather than later. The Nine-Year schooling will not solve any problem of performance. Already pre-voc teachers complain that their pupils cannot write their names even after seven or eight years of studies; one additional year will have little impact. In nine years’ time, we shall have to come to terms with this reality: the educational level of our pupils will have remained the same.

Up to now we have relied wholly on international research for our educational policies with little input from local researchers. It is well established in international educational research and from our local experience that poverty and low socio-economic status disadvantage children in their educational journey. Yet we know very little about how these disadvantages are accumulated over the years in our different local contexts, how they operate and what specific factors come into play. We simply make assumptions based on our personal experience, draw conclusions without detailed evidence and thereafter propose solutions borrowed from other countries and hope they will work. No wonder we fail.

What we really need is a permanent team of local primary education specialists and practitioners, anthropologists and sociologists working together, with the help of foreign experts, to make a proper diagnosis of lower primary education and to come up with strategies to support teaching and learning. It should not be a one-off but an ongoing project as schools are dynamic institutions subject to change just like society. Even a permanent team or body investigating, exploring and monitoring lower primary education is not a magic solution for there is none – but we need to be permanently engaged if we want to improve educational performance right from the beginning. We also need to empower educators at that level, giving them full autonomy to implement learning strategies that benefit every child in the classroom. A rigid system at this level is a recipe for failure.

In Britain a major research project started after the Second World War recording all children born in a particular week in March 1946 and following them since has yielded many insights that have informed public policies. It was the research findings from this project which established the link between poverty and underachievement, led to the introduction of maternity services in the NHS, comprehensive education in the 1960s, proved the adverse effects of smoking on the developing foetus, and explained the rise of obesity in the British population in the 1980s. The discovery of adult illiteracy led to adult education courses and it was also found that 80 percent of the cohort, now in their 70s, have at least two of a list of 15 medical disorders.

We are not advocating a similar longitudinal project, which is beyond our resources, but we can investigate our lower primary education to improve educational outcomes for all. If we do not set out to do so, we will simply be repeating every year a pass rate of 60-70% at the primary level criminally ignoring those who do not succeed just like we do nothing about the annual Director of Audit Report. Everybody acknowledges that illiteracy is unacceptable in our society, and for that matter in any society. We are all aware of its terrible consequences and we have a responsibility to work out credible solutions, but solutions can only emerge from a proper and rigorous diagnosis of the problem.

Sada Reddi

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