A few days ago here in Barbados, we experienced the publication of the Common Entrance Examination (also referred to as the 11+) results and the now simultaneous announcement of its top performers. On this occasion though, I was pleased to see the adoption and utilization of widely available streaming technology as I, and many thousands more had the privilege of watching this announcement live via the internet.
I must say that I am impressed with this initial action taken by the recently elected and appointed Minister of Education, Technological and Vocational Training, the Honourable Miss Santia Bradshaw as it speaks and gives place to a new level of transparency, openness and collective dialogue that we have badly needed relative to the state of our education system and its overall output or productivity. I am also delighted to see that there have been some noteworthy improvements in the average scores being obtained by our young people, even over the last two years; advances of this nature speak to the hard work and dedication of our teachers, parents and indeed, our students and for this, all must be applauded.
Each year, there is loads of debate relative to the fairness and overall utility of the 11+ exam with its proponents being satisfied with it as an effective instrument for the allocating of thousands of students across the comparatively small number of secondary schools. On the other hand, its detractors see it as an elitist ‘weapon’ being aimed at the majority of our young minds only serving to destroy their hopes, dreams and relegating the masses to almost certain failure. Personally, I have no major issue with the 11+ as a system but I do believe that its image and overall presentation to the public needs some work and it needs a strong supporting structure so it can be even more effective as a tool.
With the current heavy focus on the performance of top achievers, I can get why some persons would view the entire exercise as elitist in nature. Each year, we look out to hear about the top ten, the top boy and the top girl but with an average of over 3,000 pupils sitting the exam each year, there must be a better and more balanced way to shine the light on a greater cross-section of those who sit the exam. From an image point-of-view, would it be more palatable if we delay the Minister’s statement on the 11+ results to a time and date when more information is collated on an expanded range of categories of performance, such as most improved students (yearly average vs. exam results)?
In fact, why can’t we have a sort of national youth awards ceremony where we bring together and recognize all of the students from each primary school who took the exam? At such an event, we can go school by school and award the top 10, the most improved, the best math result, the best grammar result, the most imaginative composition (this may have to be national), the most consistent performer, the most persistent/hardest working student, etc. The event can also serve the purpose of reaffirming the fact that the journey towards individual success does not start nor does it end with the 11+ exam, and several inspirational speakers can share on this theme throughout the proceedings. I believe that such an event can go a long way in allowing all of our students to feel celebrated and motivated to positively move forward into the next chapter of their lives.
That’s on the overall image of the exam but wider and more comprehensive support is needed to buoy it and make it more impactful. There is no way that a student should be allowed to sit the exam when his or her performance in trial exams and term/year results indicate that the information is not being understood or retained. But it happens and when it does, the 11+ serves as a flashlight revealing and putting on display the shortcomings of our education system – it is no wonder why some view it so negatively. Too long have we heard stories of our young people being advanced to secondary schools and even then, again leaving that level without being able to read or even write their own name.
This is not the fault of the exam but I dare say that we have not made enough resources available to appropriately identify and then support those students who have learning disabilities on one hand and those who may just be late bloomers on the other. Where are the widespread remedial programmes that will help struggling students to either get back to their age-appropriate learning levels or if necessary, to create specific tracks upon which they can still develop and thrive in their own way and at their own pace? These need to be in place long before the child gets to class four and if they are in place and effective, we will be able to better prepare all students for the exam (which will then lead to larger numbers doing well) or at the very least, be able to rightly identify those who need to be given greater levels of support in varying ways.
Our leaders need to be sure that none of our youth are left behind through ensuring that this tool of the 11+ is properly presented and adequately supported. In so doing, we will lower instances of any of our youth feeling marginalized and worse yet, being left to fall through the cracks to our collective injury. While our system should definitely celebrate those who are flying high, it must equally extend a hand to those who are trending below the required levels to bring them up and it must at all times support, undergird and provide space and, if necessary, make alternative tracks available to those who simply need it most.
(Davidson Ishmael holds a MBA in Leadership and Innovation and is an operations manager in the financial services sector.