“The idea that bright students use their brains rather than their hands continues to haunt the Education System; it has a demonstrably negative effect on the Tech-Voc subjects.
“[…] The result of this prejudice is that we have technicians but not technologists, that we produce students who can repair shoes but who do not know how to design them.
“It also means that we deny the ‘bright’ students the skills to be self-employed entrepreneurs and that our engineers largely have to acquire their Tech-Voc skills in university.”
The following guest column was submitted by former Trinity College (Moka) principal Michael Clarke, who also worked in Curriculum Development at the Ministry of Education and was Chief Examiner for CSEC Geography until 2016:
Allied to my own personal, first-hand experience, recent statements on Education from local sources and sources across the Caribbean and in the USA convince me that our education system needs to be upgraded.
The statements include the Caribbean Examination Council (CXC) newsletter outlining the “wallet of qualifications” candidates can earn in the various examinations, a statement by a Caribbean minister to the effect that the CXC’s CVQ is designed to cater for those who are “vocationally inclined” and the view of Trinidad and Tobago’s attitude to Tech-Voc students expressed by a Trinbagonian former Tech-Voc student who is now a plumber in the USA.
Finally, there is the comment made by Anthony Garcia, the current T&T Education Minister, in reference to the number of candidates who got “full certificates” in the 2018 Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) examinations.
I will focus on three inputs in the system in Trinidad and Tobago: the policy and attitude to Tech-Voc Education, assessment of boys in co-ed schools and the standard allotment of five years made available to students in secondary schools.
Attention to these three will, I think, go a long way in helping students to achieve their full potential as well as becoming disciplined, academically balanced citizens, able to contribute to the development of the country.
We in T&T need to recognise that, as happens with computer operating systems, there comes a time when attempting to patch the education system is no longer a viable option and a new system is needed. In order to get the best for and from the students, we have to examine the inputs and processes and change them and the related infrastructure.
We also need to remember that it is in the nature of systems to resist change and that systems always seek to maintain themselves.
The original inputs in the T&T Education System were made based on the philosophy behind educating children which was then held. The curriculum, the number of secondary school places and Technical-Vocational training options reflected a belief that just about 10% of the students could benefit from the secondary education on offer in grammar schools and a mere 4% from what university provided.
Tech-Voc training was offered in post-primary centres. This was the status quo until 1960.
The public secondary schools took the top 10% of the primary school students but none had a Tech-Voc programme open to all students in Form 5. Where available, the Tech-Voc subjects were reserved for the “weaker” students. Guiding that curriculum was the belief that a student who was not good with his brains would be good with his hands and that those who were good with their brains were best served by taking academic courses.
Yet the technical institutes required applicants to have O- and A-level passes in academic subjects related to the courses they offered!
Despite successful professionals, businessmen and women and many contractors graduating from technical and vocational institutes, the academic subjects were and still are seen by many in the society as the “better” options on which to set your sights. Even among successful parents, few seek to form a family business in their Tech-Voc area by encouraging their children to follow them as a first option.
When new secondary schools were opened in 1961, the first major patch was made to the system, with secondary education being offered to 20% of the students. Tech-Voc subjects were included in the curriculum because the catchment now included a wider ability range.
Parents generally objected to their children being offered Tech-Voc subjects and the curriculum of those schools had to be modified in favour of academic and aesthetic subjects. Parents—and students!—continued to see Tech-Voc subjects as courses for dunces.
This view persisted even after the completion of another patch in 1974, when the so-called comprehensive schools came into being. The policy document stated clearly that these new institutions were not true comprehensive schools but two schools on the same compound, one academic and the other Tech-Voc.
The Tech-Voc programme continued to be for the “weaker” students, a designation arrived at on the basis of performance during the three years spent in the Junior Secondary Schools.
Today, things have changed and all students now qualify to attend secondary school. However, the idea that bright students use their brains rather than their hands continues to haunt the Education System; it has a demonstrably negative effect on the Tech-Voc subjects.
Based on their performance in the SEA examination, we stream the top students (about 10%) into the schools with sixth forms, then the next 10% into the older five-year schools and the remaining 80% into the new schools.
As a rule, the older schools with sixth forms do not offer Tech-Voc subjects, these continue to be offered to the “weaker” students. The result of this prejudice is that we have technicians but not technologists, that we produce students who can repair shoes but who do not know how to design them.
It also means that we deny the “bright” students the skills to be self-employed entrepreneurs and that our engineers largely have to acquire their Tech-Voc skills in university.
Tech-Voc education is expensive, it is true. But what we need is to have ALL schools offering Tech-Voc subjects in an integrated curriculum. To achieve this, the curriculum of the grammar schools, for example, BAHS, CIC, QRC and SAGHS, will need to be modified.
But there is an important question which has to be answered before we proceed with the necessary modification. At what age, we must ask ourselves, is it best to determine the Tech-Voc specialty and offer the required education?
If, as many countries do, we turn our eyes to the example of Sweden, we see that there Tech-Voc is first offered at age 16. That is more or less the age at which our students write the CXC CSEC exams before some go on to do their Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Examination (CAPE) courses.
Here in T&T, we try to identify the Tech-Voc aptitudes among those we think are “vocationally inclined” at 14+. Our exam results seem to say that that is not the proper age.
As the NAR’s Minister of Education, the late Clive Pantin planned to get help from Germany and—as is done in that country—offer Tech-Voc education after a common secondary foundation programme. The system resisted that change.
What may be needed in all secondary schools is an introduction to Technology Education in the lower and middle school and then a more comprehensive Tech-Voc programme at sixth form level for those who are interested.
Is there any real reason, after all, why what obtains for CAPE subjects should not also obtain for Tech-Voc?
In the late 1990s and the early years of this century, the Curriculum Development Division at the Ministry of Education—including the Secondary Education Modernisation Programme (SEMP)—made attempts to introduce Technology Education in all schools. Once more, the System resisted the change.
In a recent TV interview done in the USA, Judaline Cassidy, who had attended a trade school in Trinidad and is now a successful Trinbagonian plumber in New York, said the current system in T&T does “a disservice to the country as it images tradespeople as baffling idiots and the country is falling apart because no one is there to take the trades jobs.”
“The trades,” she added, “need to be exalted.”
Editor’s Note: Click HERE to read Part Two of Michael Clarke’s series on ‘The marginalisation of Tech-Voc Education’.