For a long time now, education experts, both in the armchair and in the field have been saying that despite our successes over the years, our current education system is deeply flawed and must reform so Barbados can better face the challenges of the 21st Century.
The Common Entrance Examination, commonly known as the 11-Plus, is one of the pillars of the system, but it also generates ire in some circles, with some calling for its abolition. We believe that ahead of its abolition, a number of important improvements can be made now until the dust of debate settles.
The first thing we ought to consider is making better provision for ‘late bloomers’ in the school population. In Infants B and Class 2 at primary school, children must take a Criterion Reference Test, which examines their knowledge of basic concepts in English Grammar and Mathematics. So why is it that some children enter secondary school unable to read and form properly written sentences, have trouble adding and subtracting, and still present with these same problems when they are 16 years old and are ready to leave school altogether? That should never be the case if the Criterion Reference Tests are doing their job.
When these tests identify such problems, the students should be placed in remedial education classes for their age group where they get more individualised attention from teachers who are specially trained to identify such learning challenges as dyslexia, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) which may be affecting their ability to concentrate on, or understand, their work. And these children should be deferred from writing the Common Entrance Exam until that remedial work is complete.
Of course, responsibility for a child’s education begins in the home, and so from the very beginning, parents should check their child’s homework, help them with anything they may not understand, and where necessary, seek assistance from external sources.
Then there is the proverbial elephant in the room – the stigma attached to what we still consider the newer secondary schools, even though the newest (Lester Vaughan) is 20 years old now, a distinction once made between the original grammar schools and schools built from the 1950s onwards.
This stigmatisation goes beyond the school system and extends into the working world, where some schools are still more equal than others. The pass mark system of secondary school allocation has cemented the idea that some schools and their students are not good enough, and in many instances becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Every year, we see parents reward children for doing well in the Common Entrance Exam and passing for the more prestigious schools, while those who may pass for a so-called newer school do not enjoy the same rewards. This has a demoralising effect on the child who may think he or she is a failure based on the results of one test. In this instance, parents need to be more encouraging and show their children that the school they attend does not define them as an individual nor does it limit the potential they possess to do great things in the future.
Thankfully, based on a recent statement from a representative of the Criminal Justice Research and Planning Unit the ‘seven secondary schools from which the majority of the prison population come’ were not publicly identified, but what really caused that problem? We are certain the children are not all bad and most teachers are doing their best, so are there any plans to carry out any studies at these schools, to talk to the teachers and students, both past and present, to determine why the reasons for this supposed pipeline to prison?
And it is unrealistic to think that all of society’s high-flyers come from schools in the 90th percentile in Common Entrance’s pass marks. There are indeed late bloomers, and some of the children in the ‘newer secondary schools’ achieve excellent results at the CSEC examinations, while others in the older, more prestigious schools do not progress beyond third form.
When the Ministry of Education produced its White Paper on Education Reform in the mid-1990s, there was talk of making certain schools “centres of excellence” for specific subjects. What has become of this idea? We saw the closure of the Alma Parris Secondary School which was set up for slow learners, but in its short life, that school managed to produce young people who did well in their chosen fields. We need a school like that again, or remedial teachers at every level in every school to help those children who may not be progressing well after Common Entrance so they have at least a fighting chance at CSEC.
Ideally, if we are serious about a level playing field, we should have a system where students and their parents can freely choose which schools they want to attend regardless of the marks they get. And if we want an example of that, why not look at the privately owned secondary schools? They take students who have achieved all manner of scores in the Eleven-plus exam, but many of those children make good progress and do not seem to present with the same issues as those in the state-owned institutions.
A school should never be seen as an exam factory where children are prepared for either the Common Entrance or CSEC/CAPE; where they either get on board the train or get left on the platform. If we are serious about the principle that “Each Child Matters” – coincidentally the theme of the 1990s White Paper – we have to ensure everyone has a fair opportunity from the very start by putting measures in place to help them where they need help.
This we must do, while not letting the school they attend after passing an exam at age eleven determine the course of their lives or how people prejudge them.