The new Minister of Education, Technological and Vocational Training Ms Santia Bradshaw’s first comments on education came at a time when the Common Entrance Examination results were being assessed by her officials. The significance of the timing, however, gives me the opportunity to raise one of the most, if not the most critical issue in education in Barbados – the need for a reform of the transfer of pupils from primary to secondary schooling.
I would hope, therefore, that the minister gives more than casual attention to this topic since it has become one of the major challenges in education since Independence. Both proponents and opponents of the Common Entrance Examination have been battling over this issue without any resolution. Successive governments have offered mere cosmetic changes but none fundamental enough to correct the deep distortion in our educational system that emanates from the present transfer system.
For decades, Barbadians have been calling for reform of the Common Entrance Examination. Its introduction in 1959 has served its purpose in that the admission to any secondary school in Barbados, whether old or new, is based purely on a child’s ability and not on colour, class or religious orientation. However, because of the examination’s emphasis on cognitive aptitude coupled with the Barbadian preference for colonial symbolism, the Common Entrance Examination, over the decades, has produced a persistent gulf within our secondary system of education.
Minister Bradshaw, there is no way that at the beginning of this twenty-first century, where Barbados has achieved so much in the diversification of its economy from sugar to non-sugar production, tourism, manufacturing and off shore services that its educational system should be so structured as to continually produce a core of persons who are made to feel themselves second-class citizens because of the secondary institution at which they were taught.
The Common Entrance Examination, because of its high academic demands, ensures that every year the lowest achievers in the exam are sent to schools such as St. George Secondary, Grantley Adams Secondary, Parkinson Secondary and the Daryll Jordan Secondary. Such schools often get students attaining between zero and fifty marks. In fact, there was a time when children who could not gain entry to secondary schools because of very low marks were often indiscriminately shuffled off to any of the above mentioned schools.
Yet, in spite of this very discriminatory practice, these schools have been able to produce very outstanding graduates who can be found within our civil service, our public sector and our major tertiary institutions such UWI, Cave Hill and the Barbados Community College. They are to be found playing major roles within the wider Caribbean, Europe and North America. Yet, at the secondary stage of their development, Barbadian society sees their institutions as inferior to those like Queen’s College or Harrison College. A reminder here is that Barbados’ favourable human development index is reflective of the contribution of all our citizens and not only those few who are fortunate to enter our so-called prestigious schools.
The reality is that since both the older grammar schools and the newer secondary schools came under the same form of board administration in 1983, there has been a systematic equalization of both human and material resources ever since. The result has been that in the academic year, 2001-2002, there was, for example, a minimum difference in terms of trained graduates between the top secondary schools and those that are generally perceived to be at the bottom of the educational ladder.
The question, therefore, is why are some of our secondary schools still targeted as inferior and not acceptable enough for most parents when making secondary school choices? My own view is that the Common Entrance Examination is the common factor that continues to create this dichotomy within our secondary school system.
Thus, noted educator Dr Leonard Shorey, after reviewing the 1994 CEE results where students who scored 75 per cent or more were admitted to five schools while the others with less than 60 per cent and as low as 15 per cent were sent to the other schools, remarked: “The case for a different process of allocation is therefore quite strong.”
One of the greatest reasons for abandoning the present CEE is its very negative impact on curriculum delivery in our primary schools. Barbadians continue to blame the education system for not graduating citizens who are productive, entrepreneurial, culturally aware, innovative etc., etc., yet say nothing of primary school teachers who spend ninety percent of their time teaching Mathematics and English Language. The effect of all this is that teaching methodologies rooted in child development and educational theories are all discarded for work books and an unending roll-out of past CEE papers. According to Matthew Farley, a famed critic of the CEE:
“The practice has been to teach Mathematics and English almost to the total exclusion of subjects such as Social Studies and Science which are done mainly after the examination is completed in Class 4.”
Secondly, after the examination, those with the highest marks are placed in schools considered to be the top secondary schools while the others are sent to schools of varying levels of academic achievement. The Barbadian society is then left with some schools that take in all those achieving under 30 – schools that are still expected to compete at CXC Level with those that had received the brightest students.
Common sense must dictate that such schools at the lower end of the secondary scale must present the greatest challenges educationally. Not only does the society show a low level of esteem for these schools in the first place, but the situation is further exacerbated when so many of such children are being taught in the same institution. I am, therefore, bemused when members of society are constantly calling for increased guidance counsellors, psychologists, mental health professionals and safety officers!
Schools such as St. George Secondary and Ellerslie have all had their moments of excellence. They are staffed with some of the finest professionals in the system. Their students have performed remarkably well in athletics, music, agriculture, sports, performing arts, and even at the academic level. According to Mr John Blackman, “It is therefore incumbent on all Barbadians to rally around these schools and support them. They have played their role in maintaining our enviable educational system, and some of their graduates have distinguished themselves in various disciplines.”
The challenge to the Ministry of Education and the new Minister is to devise a transfer system that will allow a greater number of students with cognitive strengths to access these publicly perceived non-performing secondary schools. Such schools have the teaching experience and competencies to create environments where children can perform at their highest potential. In considering such a change I will recommend the appointment of a high-powered committee on par with that chaired in 1974 by Dr Shorey since any alternative to the CEE will have implications for (a) the quality of teaching at the primary level, (b) the nature of the examination itself (continuous assessment), (c) a less traumatic movement from primary to secondary (a more integrated system of primary and secondary education), and (d) the possible rearrangement of the secondary school system to meet the needs of a new transfer system based on the past feeder school system. The country needs real educational change.
Dr Dan C. Carter, educator and historian.