Last Friday, over 39,000 of the nation’s sixth graders completed that torturous exercise called Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT). This country has been fortunate to have a succession of very good education ministers with excellent support staff. One wonders, therefore, why this piece of unpleasantness continues to be visited on our young children.
Every aspect of this exercise combines to make life so unbearable for these youngsters; one wonders why an alternative has not been identified. These children are asked to compete for a limited number of places in schools, most of which — one must confess — are not conducive to learning. School administrations apply pressure because they need to enhance their reputations. Parents, fearful that their children may be assigned to non-performing schools, apply constant pressure. Their body language, constant pleading and bullying to “stop playing and go back to your books”, and the lucrative extra classes business all leave the poor child terrified, from two years before the examination, of the dire consequences of failing to please their parents and the embarrassment of being relegated to some remote, non-performing institution.
When I was that age, one word can be used to assess my academic performance and that was ‘dismal’. The comments by two of my teachers can explain why I came to this conclusion. We had a daily maths test. I had managed to rack up a dizzying array of zeroes out of 10. One day, I got a half out of 10. Using a red marker, the teacher wrote in two-inch block letters: IMPROVING! Or the English gentleman who taught geography, whose comment on my report card was “Trying, sometimes very”. None of this raised eyebrows in my family or caused the kind of panic we see today. I still maintained a busy schedule of church, scouts, representing my school in three major sports and my parish, occasionally, at cricket. Everyone was more than a little surprised when, in my penultimate year, I started to place first in my class. At no time in my life was I under any pressure to perform. The majority of today’s fifth and sixth graders undergo merciless daily pressure, beating and bullying from teachers, extra class tutors and parents, to adopt a blinkered approach to this examination. The result of all this is that many children exhibit signs of childhood stress. Unfortunately, while adults are able to identify and express themselves when things are not going right with them, children do not understand and just complain of physical symptoms or say nothing. Some of the signs of excessive academic pressure include:
1. Feeling sick when its time for homework or taking a test.
2. Hiding grades and report cards
3. Sudden drop in grades
4. Increase in aggressive behaviour
These are some of the problems that will surface with the increase in pressure to focus on academics and decline in playtime, leisure and creativity. The importance of these features in the life of a child was recognised decades ago by the international community. That is why, 57 years ago, embedded in the UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child is this: “…The child shall have full opportunity for play and recreation….society and the public authorities shall endeavour to promote the enjoyment of this right.” (Article 7) This proclamation was further strengthened in the Convention of the Rights of the Child of 1989, which explicitly states in Article 31 that State parties recognise the right of the child to “rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child, and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts”. International agencies are, however, concerned about the poor recognition given by countries to the rights contained in the article, particularly as it relates to girls, and poor children’s enjoyment and conditions of equality of the rights defined in Article 31. These youngsters are at the age when there is an increased ability to interact with peers and engage in competition. They are developing and testing values and beliefs that will guide present and future behaviours. They need to develop a sense of mastery and accomplishment based on physical strength, self-control and school performance. These cannot be accomplished if they are made to feel that their sole purpose in life is to pass GSAT. They need to play. They need time and space, without obligation, entertainment or stimulus, which they can choose to fill as actively or inactively as they wish. The frantic, frenetic, prolonged preparation for GSAT does not allow for these prerequisites for a well-rounded individual. Children of this age are not sufficiently developed cognitively, emotionally or linguistically to be straitjacketed into a culture of such academic intensity. The consequences can be profoundly negative, resulting in children with high levels of depression, decreased satisfaction with life, poor self-image and lower levels of autonomy and competence.
Truly, there are other ways.
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