At this time of year I try to give hope to those children that our teaching syllabuses and assessments have failed. My theme continues from the commentary I wrote last year titled, “Life Beyond the Common Entrance”.
As the Common Entrance Examination is a colonial hand-me-down, I submit as evidence my report card from 66 years ago – the year I failed the now defunct UK Eleven Plus.
Although I came next to the bottom in the class, the fact that I am with you today as a painter and sculptor is thanks to Miss Atack, my primary school teacher. She was the first to recognize my flair for art. The fact that I was eventually able to excel in all subjects, is thanks to Miss Shepard, my remarkable secondary school headmistress. She diagnosed dyslexia before the word came into common usage. I was no longer perceived as dumb but different – just as Leonardo da Vinci, Auguste Rodin, Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein were dyslexic and different.
In 1953, the year of my report card, England was still recovering from World War II and my school was located in the impoverished North of England. Nevertheless, subjects were heavily slated towards the creative arts: literature, poetry, handwork, needlework, music and art. The same subjects were also featured in the syllabus of my so called “sink” secondary modern school.
How many schools in Dominica can make a similar claim? When I offered free Saturday morning classes in the visual arts for students from schools that didn’t do art at all, the response from one headmistress was, “My girls don’t have time for that sort of thing”. This year, through the Ministry for Education, I offered free workshops at my studio for students taking CSE in Art. Despite numerous reminders, my offer has not been acknowledged, let alone acted upon. Our State College and UWI Campus offer nothing in the arts – period.
West Indians have the world’s highest incidence of dyslexia (15%) and 30% of pupils are creatively, rather than academically inclined. Thus, almost 50% of our children are being short changed by the current education system. These are the very children that, as adults, could significantly contribute to making Dominica the envy of the region.
But schooling aside, parents must also realise that their child’s needs may not equate to there own ambitions. Coming from a family of engineers, my father was none too pleased that his son was inclined towards art. A seven year engineering apprenticeship was meant to nip that in the bud. Likewise, I doubt if many Dominican parents willingly want their offspring to be another Pablo Picasso or Roger Burnett.
Civilizations are built on creativity and so too is the well-being of society. Twenty years ago a mixed race school on the outskirts of London had all the usual problems of low grades, bullying, truancy and antisocial behaviour. Then there came on the scene a headmistress who might have been Miss Atack and Miss Shepard reincarnated. With amazing effect she placed art, drama and music at the core of the school’s agenda with amazing effect. It was not long before the school’s steel band played at the Royal Festival Hall and her pupils performed in the “Merchant of Venice” at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. Her strategy for embracing the arts had a marked effect on academic achievement. Results for English, mathematics, science and history were above the national average. School inspectors cited pupil confidence, high moral, pride of achievement and exemplary behaviour.
I have witnessed a similar success story here in the Caribbean. In the 1980’s two music teachers from Canada – a husband and wife team – came down to the British Virgin Islands and started a school orchestra from scratch. Students had to save up to buy their own instruments and the orchestra’s repertoire ranged from classics to jazz. The village baker’s son, a boy of enormous girth and by no means academically inclined, became a maestro on the tuba. At the end of the couple’s two year contract, the orchestra made a tour of cities in the United States and received standing ovations.
I know for a fact that we have the raw creative talent here in Dominica. But to achieve similar success stories we need to urgently reassess our concept of education.
Students who would like to further their studies in the Visual Arts may contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org with the view of attending a free half-day introductory workshop.