Expanding Sixth Form Education: at what cost?

Minister of Education Ronald Jones, in an address at the Alleyne School on January 19, 2016, on the occasion of the launch of the school’s Leaders’ Week, gave the assurance that before he demits office, that the school would become a sixth form school.

This statement was in sync with his Government’s policy of extending sixth form education to all new secondary schools. Already the programme has been implemented at Christ Church Foundation School, Springer Memorial, The St Michael School and St Leonard’s Boys’.

The obvious aim behind this policy is to further extend to our young people the opportunity of accessing tertiary level or post-secondary education, which ever term is appropriate. There has been for sometime the overcrowding of our tertiary institutions, particularly the Barbados Community College and the Samuel Jackman Prescod Polytechnic.

My question therefore is: Is the spread of sixth forms the most cost effective way of widening access to tertiary education? The older grammar schools in Barbados with sixth forms have always epitomized the most cherished apex of our educational system. These early institutions – Harrison College, Lodge and Queen’s College – replicated the British colonial traditions of Eton, Rugby and Winchester.

The unique contribution of these schools was that they paved the way for their students to go on to British universities, thus creating according to the Bryce Report “a learned or literary, and a professional or cultural class.” According to Ralph Jemmott in his A History of Harrison College, these institutions “remained for sometime the preserve of the upper classes and a reflection of some of the social snobbery that characterized interpersonal relations in a society where people acted on the basis of certain prescriptive values related to class and colour.”

It is amazing that in a twenty-first century Barbados, the current educational administrators are ever so keen in perpetuating a sixth form culture that once catered to a Barbadian colonial society where the ‘plantation’ was the most pervading economic activity and where the majority blacks were disenfranchised in terms of their culture, politics, religion, labour and social engagement. It seems that the proliferation of a sixth form at every secondary school today is an attempt to measure academic excellence as it was in ‘yesteryear.’

There is no doubt that this quest for sixth forms originated with the desire of the then ‘second’ grade grammar schools to achieve the same status as their ‘first’ grade counterparts. As early as the 1960s, a debate ensued in the House of Assembly (Estimate Debates 1961-62) on the question of a sixth form at Foundation. Shadow Minister of Education, the Hon. Cameron Tudor (DLP), enquired of the then Minister of Education (BLP), the Hon. Luther Thorne, if there was a sixth form at Foundation and if there was the possibility of it being increased.

Minister Thorne revealed that there was not a sixth form at the school but that there were at least seven students preparing to take Advanced Level subjects. While admitting the need for an increase in sixth form education across the system, he cautioned that such a goal should not be done, “ trying to build up a sixth form at the expense of the lower and middle forms.”  Furthermore, such a programme should offer a wide variety of subjects.

The Hon. Cameron Tudor responded that his “own views and the Government’s views, on this sixth form question are not so very far apart.” It was simply a matter of what the Hon. Erskine Sandiford referred to later as taking advantage of “economies of scale” when responding to the call by second grade principals for sixth forms at their schools.

Approximately seven years later, the question of sixth form expansion was answered with the establishment of the Barbados Community College in 1969. This institution revolutionized secondary education in that it shifted sixth form education from the British model and adopted an American community college model whose curriculum was in consonance with that of a developing country. The BCC was able to offer a programme of Liberal Arts, Commerce, Science, Technology, Fine Arts, Health Sciences etc and a range of paralegal and other courses that have made it the most outstanding institution in post-colonial Barbados.

I believe that the curriculum at the BCC should be the model for any expansion in sixth form education. The Barbados Labour Party’s answer to the numbers challenge at the tertiary level in the middle 2000s was the proposed establishment of a University College of Barbados, amalgamating the BCC, the SJPP and Erdiston Teachers’ Training College. What was critical was that the BCC was to be the core or central institution for the proposed Barbados University.

 In fact, the late Hon. Brandford Taitt even suggested that Barbados should have two community colleges. Recently, Senator Alwin Adams called for the return of a sixth form at Coleridge and Parry and his reason was based on the fact, that the sixth forms in former times were only given to schools that were headed by white Englishmen. In a twenty-first century Barbados, the concern should not now be retaining the relics of our colonial past, for it is within this cultural context that there is this constant call for sixth forms.

However, the present principal of Coleridge and Parry, Mr Vincent Fergusson, was clear that he did not want a sixth form “for sixth form sake to write English and Mathematics.” He would prefer to see an improvement in the profile of the school. My own view is that the money spent on additional sixth forms could be better expended at the pupil-teacher level to enhance student learning. I believe there is a need for greater resources available to schools to ensure that all students, and not the few, reach a level of competence to more effectively participate in society as citizens.

Very recently, Glenroy Cumberbatch, Registrar of the Caribbean Examinations Council, drew the public’s attention to the fact that one of the major concerns of his organization is the number of persons leaving school without adequate qualifications. This strengthens my point that more resources are needed at the pre-fifth form levels of our education system and not at any proliferation of sixth forms.

From primary to fifth forms at secondary schools, resources should be available to provide a curriculum that targets the multiple intelligences of students to ensure that each student gains from classroom instruction. This approach should result in a more child-centred classroom instruction rather than the continued emphasis on teacher-driven instruction. There is the need for more teacher-training in areas such as the Sciences and Mathematics and the offering of special financial packages to such teachers.

There is the need for an additional secondary school to ensure that rolls at these schools are within a 700 to 800 range, thus creating more manageable and interpersonal environments which could lead to significantly less conflict. There is the need also for the upgrading of the professional certification of principals so that they do not see themselves as mere CEOs of corporate entities but as managers accessible to both students and parents and with the skills to effectively lead their institutions.

Establishing sixth forms cannot be the answer to secondary pupils who are so deficient, not merely in the academics, but in their total readiness to be effective members of society. But more fundamentally is the will to find a strategy of allocating to the newer secondary schools a more equitable distribution of abilities.

I believe, therefore, that the best way of maximizing our resources in tertiary education is to expand our existing post-secondary institutions. For example, any expansion at the BCC would provide an environment where pupils, 16-plus and over, can enjoy a more informal learning space in keeping with their ages. Secondly, it would enable students to interface more with persons of varying social backgrounds. Thirdly, and most importantly, it would expose students to a wider and more varied curriculum.

It must not be perceived that the multiplicity of sixth forms is not being used as a substitute for denying thousands of Barbadians the right to a tertiary level education at Cave Hill.

Source: (Dr Dan C. Carter is an educational historian and author)

One Response to Expanding Sixth Form Education: at what cost?

  1. VoR September 2, 2017 at 3:36 pm

    I saw the push for sixth forms as a move to keep the unemployment figures down since the economic climate isn’t conducive to the mass employment of school leavers.


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