Tue | Oct 23, 2018

Ewart Walters | Calabar: What’s a school for?

Published:Sunday | September 23, 2018 | 12:00 AM
Ewart Walters
Calabar principal Albert Corcho chats with a member of the school’s track team on Monday, March 26. Calabar has set a rigid 60 per cent average as a benchmark for boys to be promoted to higher grades, barring which their parents have been asked to place their kids elsewhere.
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Let me declare interest. I am a Baptist and a Calabar old boy. I attended that institution in the 1950s, and on leaving school became a member and secretary of the Old Boys' Association.

And, oh yes, while I am at it, I should add that I was for some years The Gleaner's education reporter, spending much time in the company of giants like Ministers Edwin Allen, Eli Matalon, Howard Cooke and State Minister Arthur Burt; and JTA titans Fay Saunders, Glen Owen, Wesley Powell, and C.C. McArthur Ireland, among others.

People old enough will remember Dr Burt, in the context of the so-called 'missing schools' scandal, but I also recall him engineering seminars on "education in the context of nation building". These widened our view on the purpose of education and the role it must play in a country with Jamaica's history, sociology and economy. In fact, the educators came away from these gatherings with the slogan, 'Education is Love'. Put another way, you have to love the child to educate him/her.

For some weeks now, Calabar has been in the news. At base, the subject has been education, or how a school prepares a child for the wider world to be.

 

QUALITY JOURNALISM

 

The first day's 'news' story that 40 boys were, in effect, facing expulsion from Calabar was incomplete. The instant online reaction from 100 people with access to the Internet was both negative and predictable. The school and its headmaster were vilified.

But how different was the next day's reaction! The next day's publication saw a comprehensive report from the principal, setting out a much fuller version of the facts and stating that while 40 boys were put on notice, only 11 were now being asked to find another place to continue their preparation for adult life. The number and tone of online comments declined dramatically. Only three this time, and none really negative.

So part of the narrative has to be the respect for journalists. Schools do not normally have public-relations personnel, and in this case which required full answers in a short time, the school initially refused comment. However, constricted by several elements including a miserly approach to the publisher's bottom line complete with early deadlines, social media (without gatekeepers and editors), and a social environment where most people do not understand the difference between news and opinion - and conflate the two - today's reporter is more exposed to error and incomplete news-gathering. Good stories sometimes take more than a day or two.

The bigger part, though, is purpose - what a school is for. The answer is that schools are about preparing children to take their place in the adult world. Not just in academic subjects, but in a way that readies them to give fullest expression to their own thoughts, inspirations and goals. And so, when Jamaica began looking seriously at this task, we developed not only grammar schools, but schools of agriculture, arts, science, technology, home economics, music, housecraft, preparatory schools, basic schools, comprehensive schools, junior secondary schools, youth camps like Cobbla, the HEART Trust, JAMAL, etc. The objective was to create learning opportunities for all age-groups and as many areas of study as possible.

Take Kingston Technical School, as it was then. Its students studied for the London City and Guilds examination, while those at Calabar and other 'grammar schools' prepared for the Senior Cambridge exams while those who wanted to enter university sat the Cambridge Higher Schools examinations. 'Technical' offered instruction in woodwork, metalwork and home economics, tailoring, shoemaking, carpentry and secretarial services including shorthand.

As the population grew - and as Jamaica came closer to managing its own house - institutions like Knockalva Practical Training Centre, Dinthill, Holmwood, the Housecraft Training Centre, Knox College, and Carron Hall where girls from the district could attend and play games and also learn to cook and sew. To those we can add the technical high schools in Clarendon (Vere), St Andrew (Bumper Hall), and St Elizabeth (Santa Cruz).

So when a principal says to 11 boys that they should look for an environment that would better fit their learning needs, he is not saying anything out of order.

 

THE BACKWARD CHILD

 

Mixed in with this, of course, is the matter of what one educator used to write about as The Backward Child. As it transpired, there was really no 'backward child'. Instead, there was the 'late bloomer'. Late bloomers tend to bloom AFTER life at school, and since it is known that girls tend to mature earlier than boys, they are more likely to be boys than girls.

Beyond that, guidance counsellors and other educators have pointed out that our system of education is made for girls - girls who will sit quietly and imbibe the teaching. Boys at 14+ are a different cohort completely, one that needs special understanding and handling.

The other consideration is the interplay of school and extra-curricular activities.

Beyond its many brilliant academic successes, Calabar always sought foremost to produce the well-rounded student" - in mind, body and spirit. Discipline played a major part.

Today, Calabar is renowned for its performances at Champs. Herb McKenley, Arthur Wint and Denis Johnson, Michael O'Hara, Javon Francis, Dejour Russell, and Christopher 'Cuddy' Taylor notwithstanding, that was not always the case. In its early days, Calabar was known for its discipline. So much so that Bishop Percival Gibson, the founder and legendary headmaster of Kingston College, was known to bring undisciplined KC boys to Calabar. Once transferred, most of these offcasts from KC were then able to fit into the Calabar garb of discipline.

Today, interschools' transfers are more likely to be related to improving the fortunes of the school's athletic prowess and bragging rights.

But! (And it is a big but) While Arthur Wint became a top doctor and a diplomat, Herb McKenley, who was not a blazing academic star, is much better known in Jamaica and around the world, having inspired hundreds of boys to successful lives through sports. Herb's progress in this world was through his prowess in athletics, the foundation of which was created at school - Calabar. I do not know if he took Senior or the Higher Schools exams. But he did well nevertheless.

And there are several people in business, the clergy and other walks of life whose high-school education ended before fifth form, but who are well known as successes in their field.

One more thing. As Jamaica emerged from colonialism in mid-1962, and people revelled in the 'Man Free' euphoria, many people, including some politicians, felt discipline was too much tied to the colonial rulers with their cat-o-nine tails, harsh prison sentences for blacks, and rules, generally, that kept the majority of the population suppressed. As a consequence, discipline islandwide faltered and faded. Calabar was no exception and, eventually, the board engaged a disciplinarian to lead the school.

 

NOTICEABLE IMPROVEMENT

 

Enter Albert Corcho.

There is no question about the improvement. The levels of discipline at Calabar have been improving and they have done so publicly. A few years ago, there was the case of adhering to the dress code, which was stiffened. Boys were met at the school gate and turned away if their uniforms were incomplete. As is usual (in Jamaica especially), there were vociferous comments on either side of the decision. But the headmaster prevailed, and discipline levels rose.

At the continued urgings of his board, the old boys and his own desirable bent, Mr Corcho is now putting another rung in the school's ladder for discipline in classwork. I say classwork rather than 'academic' work because Calabar does not only offer an academic programme. Indeed, I have just had a look at the school's most recent strategic reports and am amazed at the extensive diversity since my time there in the 1950s.

In my day, we eventually had the option of woodwork, but apart from that (and things like drama, scouting, swimming, and the Students Christian Movement), it was purely academics - much of which was foreign (German unification, French and American revolutions, History of the British Tudors and Stewarts, no real Jamaican or Caribbean literature or history). Things have changed. Big time.

Change is not painless. But while everything in Jamaica has two (vociferous) sides, there are other options for the 11 boys. I have no doubt that these options are being pursued to the benefit of the boys and their parent(s).

- Ewart Walters is a journalist and author and a former education and parliamentary reporter for The Gleaner. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and spectrum@storm.ca.