‘UNICEF has left the blocks late’

Absolutely necessary, but way too late. That is how some school leaders yesterday responded to a call made by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) for the Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC) to make adjustments to this year’s school-leaving tests scheduled for June 15.

Dwight Pennycooke, principal of Wolmer’s High School for Boys, told the Jamaica Observer that any adjustment at this time would be heavily unfavourable.

“We made it abundantly clear from as soon as last year May that we needed to start looking ahead and to start making preparations for our students who would be sitting CSEC [Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate] and CAPE [Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Examination] examinations. No one listened. So, at this stage, most of our students, at least in my school, we have been making the effort to get them prepared. Adrenaline is high, the teachers have been putting in the effort, and everyone has a particular timeline and deadline in their minds,” Pennycooke said.

On Monday UNICEF urged CXC and ministers of education in the region to make adjustments to the content and administration of exit exams in line with recommendations made by the Caribbean Union of Teachers (CUT) “to ensure that the region’s school students are not further disadvantaged”.

“What is being asked for by UNICEF, really and truly, I think it would be detrimental to those students who would have been prepared and are being prepared to sit exams come June 15,” Pennycooke added.

He argued that postponing the exams would destabilise both teachers and students.

“It is likely that we could see worse performances than we have ever seen in a long time. It is therefore necessary for us to keep the dates that we currently have, but CXC needs to move very quickly to provide a detailed description of the topics so that the students can even fine-tune their preparation for the next couple of weeks before exams actually begin,” Pennycooke added.

He said concessions can be made for school-based assessments (SBAs) as suggested, but not at this time.

“We have been calling for these concessions since last May, and we were looking ahead. Nobody listened to us. If only they had acted at that time. Now we are hoping that they would look ahead to 2022 and begin to see that our current crop of students is equally disadvantaged. And so, they need to make those concessions from early, so that we don’t have this rolling decimal. We cannot afford that at this particular point in time.”

Raymond Treasure, principal of York Castle High School, said his students are not in favour of another delay in the exams.

“It depends on the school that you’re speaking to. There are some schools and students that are way behind. Jamaica is two Jamaicas, as they put it. Because of access to resources, you have some students who would be way ahead at this point. Now that students have returned face to face, teachers would’ve picked up that a lot of these students are behind and did not complete SBAs, and so on,” he said.

“So, I can understand those students and teachers begging for an extension and begging for the opportunity now. It would be unfair to say what goes for York Castle should go for everyone else.”

Treasure said, for the most part, his cohort of exam students is prepared.

“My students are saying they are ready and they don’t want a delay, because we would’ve pushed them to meet these timelines. They are saying no delays. The majority of my teachers have completed their syllabus. My teachers are now marking the SBAs to submit the grades. We would’ve put on the pressure on students before so we couldn’t come end of May now to say reduce the requirements,” he said.

Treasure also said an extension of the dates for exams would derail the plans of many students who challenged themselves to continue schooling amid the pandemic.

“Some students are ready because they would’ve applied for overseas universities. Students are requesting transcripts. They want to move on with their lives. In fact, my students are actually completing a petition to say they are ready for their exams. They don’t want to be delayed into August. They are saying that they now want a break from the machine,” he told the Observer.

Likewise, Mark Malabver, principal of Yallahs High School, said a postponement of the examinations will pose a serious threat for the following academic year.

“From my perspective, the extension is going to go down in the school year, and it’s going to have implications as to us planning for September,” he said.

“We would have been taking all the necessary steps to get the students prepared for exams as best as we could, so we are psyching them up. The extension is going to require us to wheel and come again in terms of how we strategise, in terms of how we tap into the psyche of the students. Many of our students would have been a little bit pumped up already, getting ready for the exams. Teachers would’ve been making that final push. For the goal post to move again we would have to re-strategise,” Malabver said.

“It does have its merits in terms of the postponement, but it also comes with serious shortcomings,” he added.

“I’m just concerned about it. It is really something to consider. We are struggling in terms of getting the SBAs in. However, I’m not sure as to how feasible it is at this point in time. UNICEF has left the blocks late. These discussions ought to have been taking place at least eight weeks ago. UNICEF is coming towards the back end.”

Malabver added: “CSEC did publish some [exam topics], but it doesn’t help us much. We would’ve expected that they would’ve given something a little more detailed to better enable us to zero in on those topics that will be covered in the exams, especially for paper two. That is where we ought to be going. We need to push for more information from CSEC for the specific areas. That is what I would like, so my teachers can zero in.”

Meanwhile, Linvern Wright, president of the Jamaica Association of Principals of Secondary Schools, said all sides have to be explored for the students to benefit.

“There are some who are prepared and I think that if they are prepared and psychologically ready for it, and then don’t have the examination, they are going to be affected. What really needs to happen is, allow the exams to go on and then those students who have a problem, CXC should have a sitting in November, one in January, one in April,” he suggested.

“So, as the different sets are ready, the exam is there for them. That’s the kind of adaptation CXC needs to have right now. I don’t feel that is fair for people who have prepared and sacrificed throughout all of this and are ready to now be hearing that it is going to be put off. That is, in itself, a punishment.”

Yesterday, the CXC’s governing council met to discuss and approve final examinations and procedures for 2021. The council is set to make a statement today.

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