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Commonwealth seeks reasons for underachieving school boys

The Commonwealth secretariat is commissioning a three-year-long study on reasons for the underachievement of boys in the Caribbean.

The secretary-general of the Commonwealth, Kamalesh Sharma, confirmed this during a week-long tour of Jamaica, Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.

The tour in June 2011 focused on reducing youth unemployment, said Sharma, an Indian-born career diplomat who is a literature graduate of Cambridge University in the UK.

Speaking at a seminar in Jamaica, Sharma said the study will target 30 schools in Jamaica, Saint Lucia, and Trinidad and Tobago, all Commonwealth countries and former British colonies.

“In Jamaica and other parts of the Caribbean, there is a special problem of boys’ underachievement, and the Commonwealth is very much concerned about this,’’ Sharma said, according to the Jamaica government information service.

‘‘We’re going to do…deep analytical work in these schools to see what it is, as far as schools are concerned, that can be done in order to rectify this,” Sharma said.

Sharma noted that the issue of boys’ underachievement was also discussed at a May 2011 Commonwealth Caribbean Conference in London which focused on investing in youth employment.

Project planning documents obtained by Research Caribbean stated that the study aimed “to provide a regional strategy from which all member countries can benefit.”

It justified the choice of Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago “based on their requests for assistance, and St Lucia based on anecdotal evidence.”

The terms of reference for the project were issued by the London-based secretariat and posted on the website of the government of Saint Kitts and Nevis.

It stated that participating schools will collaborate on all aspects of the process from the research through to the implementation of intervention strategies.

The target will be 30 “poor performing schools with high boys’ drop-out rates, high performing schools with limited boys’ retention issues, single and co-educational school, and government and denominational schools,” the document stated.

The first phase of the study requires a situation scan and research; stage two will implement school improvement strategies based on the research findings and the third phase will focus on ongoing support, monitoring and evaluation.

Stage two will involve field research over five months, including a baseline study of the chosen schools to collate data on variables affecting the performance and examination results of students in the respective schools and identify factors contributing to the educational underachievement of boys in the Caribbean.

The terms noted that “the work will only allow focus on the education factors”, anticipating that the research will also “go a long way in identifying some of the other factors which will in turn inform national policy development and intervention.”

“Although boys continue to perform well in traditional male subjects such as engineering, girls have made great strides into challenging other traditional male subjects such as medicine,’’ the document stated.

‘‘On the other hand, boys have not ventured into traditional female subjects such as nursing; and females continue to dominate the teaching profession,” the document pointed out.

Caribbean boys regularly underperformed in comparison with their female counterparts, it noted.

The research will consider such variables as local socio-economic conditions of the school environment, curriculum and subjects available, progression and grading criteria, teacher and principal qualifications, experiences and status, parent/community involvement and student support available.

The document stated that “the issue of boys’ underachievement was identified as a regional priority.”

It noted the secretariat’s 2007 publication “Boys’ underachievement in education – an exploration in selected Commonwealth countries”.

It was prepared by Jyotsna Jha, Commonwealth advisor in education and gender, who holds a PhD in education economics, and Fatimah Kelleher, a Commonwealth programme officer in universal primary education and a graduate of the University of London School of Oriental and African Studies.

It was published through the Commonwealth of Learning (COL), an intergovernmental organisation mandated by the Commonwealth’s 54 member states to develop and share open learning and distance education knowledge, resources and technologies.

Other previous Commonwealth activities on the issue included a conference hosted by the secretariat and the World Bank in May 2009 in Jamaica entitled ‘‘Common Platform for Action: Caribbean conference on keeping boys out of risk.’’

A follow-up conference, entitled Boys and Education: A Life Cycle Approach to Keeping Boys out of Risk, was held for stakeholders in Jamaica on 25 June 2010.

There were also attempts by the Trinidad and Tobago Ministry of Education in early 2010 to get the secretariat’s assistance on a policy for single sex schools in that country.

The project documents claimed that the effort was in keeping with the secretariat’s actions towards fulfilling the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals to promote access to quality universal primary education and eliminate gender disparities in primary and secondary education.

The Commonwealth will also collaborate with the regional offices of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the Caribbean Examination Council (CXC).

The CXC, established in 1972, is the primary organ of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) in conducting and regulating examinations and awarding certificates and diplomas for secondary level education.

The CXC operates within Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Belize, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, Montserrat, St Kitts and Nevis, St Lucia, St Vincent and The Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago, and the Turks and Caicos Islands.