A cross section of educators who attended the opening ceremony for the Barbados Students At Risk Conference at the Lloyd Erskine Sandiford Centre. (C. Pitt/BGIS)

The inaugural Barbados Students at Risk Conference, which officially opened yesterday at the Lloyd Erskine Sandiford Centre, has been described as timely for getting at the root causes of problems facing students.

This was stressed by presenters including the Chief Education Officer Laurie King, who delivered an address on behalf of Minister of Education and Human Resource Development, Ronald Jones.

He said: "After 50 years of universal access to free education in Barbados we need to ensure that the education we provide for our citizens is not only accessible but that it is of the highest quality, [and that] it is effective and our population is satisfied with our product. We must also ensure that all students, regardless of their abilities, have the opportunity to rise against any challenges presented before them and realise their true potential."

Lauding the coordinators of the conference, Mr. King acknowledged that it was a step in fulfilling the goal of the Ministry to guarantee equal educational opportunities for citizens to achieve their dreams. He also stated that it would ensure that those with academic or developmental challenges are not adversely disadvantaged and that processes would be revised and fashioned to meet not only the divergent needs of students, teachers and administrators within the education sector, but adapted to conform to national, regional and international developments, thereby becoming relevant to current needs.

The conference, which runs from October 29-31, will address issues faced by students who have, for too long, been cast to the periphery of society, ridiculed because they were different, targeted with some of the most unsavoury comments, decried by their peers for nothing more than their socio-economic status, and misunderstood because they were subjectively assessed by a value system that had no tolerance for their unusual characteristics or personalities. At the end of the exercise, it is expected that participants will also help to identify strategies to address the issues presented to schools, communities and government by students.

Pointing out that some might consider the forum long overdue, the education official stressed that it did not mean that the welfare and the concerns of these students had been ignored and there was no attempt to address them. He said the mere existence of the Student Support Services Unit in the Ministry, was testimony to the fact that the issues were always considered and actively addressed. And, Mr. King added that the Unit, through staging the conference, would be providing a platform for the sharing of information and imparting knowledge and skills acquired over the years across wider sections of the education sector.

"Participants will, therefore, have less of a reason to throw their hands in the air when faced with unusual behaviours from students as they will now be better equipped to understand, address and cope with behaviours and attitudes of students that fall outside of the norm," Mr. King maintained, making it clear that the Ministry recognised that students’ attitudes and behaviours were not only manifestations of their personalities or some physical or psychological attribute.??

The Chief Education Officer said: "Inadequacies in the home and the community can also be contributing factors to academic underachievement. Yet, schools are expected by some to transform all individuals although they are only exposed to an average of about five hours of instruction per day. The other 19 hours of the day, 80 per cent is in the domain of the family and the community.

"I am not absconding from the responsibility entrusted to the Ministry of Education to provide a learning environment for the nation’s children, but want to emphasise the shared role between the school and the family. Schools and educational institutions have the capacity in terms of knowledge and skills, human and physical resources and commitment to meet the needs of their charges but still cannot do it alone."??

Meanwhile, keynote speaker, Dr. Pedro Noguera, the Peter L. Agnew Professor of Education at New York University, in pointing out the importance of getting "at the cause" and not only the symptom, said, "When we see young people in school who are not performing… who are not attending regularly… who are acting out and misbehaving, those are symptoms of larger problems. If you only respond to the symptom you will not address the problem."

Stressing the need to be more creative and to build capacity within schools to change outcomes, he added, "If we simply say to the teachers and principals we have to raise standards and we don’t look at the conditions in which they are working and we don’t ask basic questions: ???Are these children receiving the support they need?’, not only academic support, but health which is an educational issue because sick, homeless or hungry children don’t do so well in school…

"If we’re not thinking of the needs of our children in a more integrated manner then what happens [is] we punish the neediest children and we punish them because of their needs. We have to ask ourselves when we focus on improving education – Are we creating the conditions that lead to success or are we punishing the schools that serve the neediest children?"


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