Recent articles in Barbados TODAY with comments by Prime Minister Mia Mottley, Minister of Education Santia Bradshaw and David Comissiong, Barbados Ambassador to CARICOM, have raised the question about whether to abolish the 11-plus examination and bring about major changes in the education system in Barbados.
The issue is whether to continue with a familiar system that has had many successes but also has some serious deficiencies or for Barbados to throw off its colonial shackles and take on the challenge of developing a world-class education system aimed at ensuring an excellent education for all children.
That is, an education system which fulfils the expectations of parents and teachers for high levels of achievement and behaviour, while raising the motivation level and self-esteem of all its young people; one that seriously reduces teenage misbehaviour and violence, as well as drastically cuts the number of school drop-outs and expulsions; one that creates more involvement of parents and communities in schools and greatly reduces the numbers of children travelling to school on buses, thereby enabling them to focus their energies on study, rather than being fatigued by travelling to and from school.
One that is excellent for all children and young people, while giving more of them the chance to attend institutions such as Harrison College and Queens College, competing for the highest levels of academic achievement, as well as scholarships; one that produces a better educated overall population, and that furthers the economic and social development of Barbados in the 21st Century. Yes, it is possible. But how can it be done?
First, the Barbados education system must throw off the shackles left over from colonial times that are no longer fit for purpose in the 21st Century. That is, it must get rid of the 11-plus, or Common Entrance Examination (CEE), that dominates the education system. This is because, as has been recognised since the 1970s, the CEE causes widespread educational under-achievement among Barbadian children, as evidenced in our recent article published in the Journal of International and Comparative Education, available by clicking this link: https://jice.um.edu.my/index.php/JICE/article/view/14399/8811
As far back as 1995, the landmark Ministry of Education report, ‘Each One Matters’ criticised the CEE, saying that it should be abandoned, and suggested that some form of geographical zoning should be put in place. Zoning was subsequently implemented to a limited extent, but the influence of the CEE over the entire education system remains to this day. Currently, hardly a week goes by without calls in the national media to reconsider the place of the CEE in the education system. Many of these calls are triggered by concerns about the violence and other behavioural problems of students travelling to or from the newer secondary schools, or incidents within these schools.
There is now extensive evidence for what is needed for countries to develop world-class education systems, for example by the OECD, from Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) evaluations that have been carried out in over 80 countries over the past two decades.
Barbadian children and young people deserve nothing less than a world-class education system in order to enable them to make the most of life in the 21st Century. A world-class education system also needs to be put in place for the country’s economic survival, since, as noted by the chief education researcher at the OECD, ‘your education system today is your economy tomorrow.’
So how do we restructure the Barbados education system and transform it into a world-class education system that works for all children and young people growing up in Barbados? First of all, there must be a move away from the selective secondary school education that currently dominates the education system. The existence of such a system of early selection and rigid academic segregation that utilises high-stakes testing in the CEE stands in contradiction to national policies across the Caribbean, including those in Barbados, that aspire to achieve equitable education systems. In addition, the current practices are in contradiction to the central values and goals of achieving an inclusive and equitable society.
This is important since PISA results have highlighted the fact that school systems which are more inclusive and equitable, and have developed comprehensive forms of education with delayed selection processes, are among the highest performing education systems in the world. An example is Finland, where legislation modernising its education system saw the move away from selective education and the introduction of a comprehensive system of education that is now considered to be the foundation upon which its world-class educational outcomes have been achieved.
In order to bring about this change and create a more inclusive and comprehensive system in Barbados, a well-designed zoning system for admission to secondary schools will need to be introduced. In this system, students will attend the secondary school nearest to where they live, thereby doing away with the need for selection using the CEE, as well as the hours spent travelling to school each day currently taken by many secondary school students. Such a system has the support of many Barbadians. However, because of the long tradition of selective entry, the prestige of certain secondary schools, and the uneven socio-economic distribution of the population in Barbados, this will not be easy to achieve.
One way to make the transition to a more equitable education system in Barbados more feasible would be to introduce a small number of sixth-form colleges. For example, the two top-rated secondary schools, Harrison College and Queens College, would cease to teach students in forms one through five and only enrol students in their sixth-form years undertaking Advanced Level courses. All other secondary schools would enrol students in forms one through five. Students would then get into the sixth-form colleges based on their passes and grades in the CXC examinations taken at the end of the fifth form year.
Sixth-form colleges in other countries have been found to be very popular with students, who consider that they are treated more like adults than school children and can more diligently focus on their studies in an environment without younger children. It would require very few changes to convert the two secondary schools into sixth-form colleges, making this change economically feasible.
However, having sixth-form colleges does not preclude other secondary schools from keeping their sixth-forms, as some students may prefer to stay at the schools and with the teachers they are familiar with. But overseas experience shows that many students will want to transfer to sixth-form colleges. Sixth-form colleges are also popular with teachers, although some prefer to teach the whole secondary age-range so this change will mean that some teachers may wish to move schools, but it would not require wholesale retraining of teachers.
All the remaining government secondary schools will need to have their own geographical zones from which they draw their students. These will need to be drawn up to ensure that schools enrol similar numbers of students and that each secondary school represents as diverse a socio-economic (SES) population as possible. Compensatory mechanisms, similar to those used in other countries, such as New Zealand and the UK, can be used to allocate additional resources to schools that have disproportionate levels of pupils from lower SES backgrounds.
Most secondary school teachers will remain at the schools at which they had previously taught but may need to develop their teaching strategies in order to cope with a broader range of abilities than they are used to, so this will require some in-service training. An advantage of children attending their neighbourhood secondary schools is that schools would become more representative of their local communities, which will encourage increased involvement of parents, thereby contributing to improved educational outcomes and a reduction in behavioural problems.
Within this new organisation, all children would attend their local secondary schools from forms one through five and have a chance to gain entry to the sixth-form colleges, based on their CXC results at around age 16 years. Because the sixth-form colleges, Harrison College and Queens College, will only have two-year cohorts of students rather than the seven years they currently teach, this means that around four times more children will have the opportunity of attending these prestigious institutions, albeit for two years rather than five.
The impact on primary school education will be an important by-product, with teachers no longer forced to concentrate most of their efforts on preparing children to sit the CEE, but able to deliver a broader curriculum and focus on facilitating the learning of all children in their classes, including those with learning difficulties.
Bringing about such a major change will be challenging and will need careful planning, but the rewards will be the creation of a much more equitable and inclusive education system that will result in raised overall academic attainment as well as reduced pupil behavioural problems, teenage violence, and school dropouts.
This change will not only provide a more inclusive education system, with more effective education for children with special needs but also raise overall educational outcomes and produce a better-educated population overall. It will also reduce social inequality, which will have an impact on poverty and employment rates, reduce youth crime, and result in a more cohesive society. Critically, it will enable the development of a world-class education system that will optimise educational outcomes for all children and young people in Barbados.
Garry Hornby is Professor Emeritus at the University of Plymouth and Dr Marcia Pilgrim is a teacher at Providence secondary school. They have both worked in education in Barbados and overseas for many years and now live in Barbados.