Following the release of the 11-Plus results this week, there are continuing calls for getting rid of the examination on TV, radio and in newspapers from senior figures in Barbados education including school principals, teachers’, union leaders and government ministers.
However, essential though it is, abandoning the 11-Plus is only part of the reforms needed, which must focus on creating a world-class education system that ensures the development of the talents of all young people in Barbados and prepares the diverse workforce needed to take the country forward in the 21st Century.
Currently, it is estimated that less than 30 per cent of young people entering secondary schools in Barbados leave school with any useful qualification. This is a disastrous situation for the youth of Barbados and for the country. The education reforms must turn this around with the goal of aiming for at least 70 per cent of young people leaving secondary schools with qualifications that are useful in gaining jobs or entry to tertiary education. Such a turnaround has been achieved in other countries, such as New Zealand, and must be the aim of education reform in Barbados.
The key to achieving this goal is moving from a selective secondary school system focused on the achievement of a high level of academic qualifications by a minority of students, to one that provides all young people with an excellent general academic education as a sound basis for a choice between obtaining useful academic, practical or vocational qualifications on leaving secondary schools.
Abandoning the 11-Plus exam will require the introduction of a zoning system for transfer from primary schools, in which students will attend the post-primary school nearest to where they live. There are various ways of organising post-primary education avoiding selection, including the development of middle schools that provide a bridge between primary and secondary schools by teaching a programme that is a combination of academic and technical/vocational courses. With entry to such middle schools through zoning and exit by students choosing which type of secondary school programme they want to follow, this option could provide an effective non-selective way forward. However, this option would require the re-training of teachers and the development of a specialized curriculum to adequately provide for this age group, with its specific needs, as is done in parts of the USA, as well as the building of additional schools.
The simplest and most economically feasible way to bring about non-selective secondary education in Barbados is through the introduction of sixth-form colleges, which are increasingly popular in many countries. Within this type of organisation, all children attend the secondary schools for which they are zoned from forms one through five and have a chance to gain entry to sixth form colleges at around age 16 years, based on their CXC/CSEC examination results.
Two sixth form colleges, for example, Harrison College and Queens College, would cease to teach students in forms one through five and only enrol students in their sixth form years who are undertaking advanced level CAPE courses. All other secondary schools would enrol students in forms one through five and offer programmes leading to CXC and CSEC examinations, as well as more technical programmes leading to vocational qualifications such as Caribbean Vocational Qualifications. Students would then get into the sixth form colleges based on their passes and grades in the CXC/CSEC examinations taken at the end of the fifth form year, or get into community college or polytechnic courses based on their performance on CVQs, or leave school to get jobs.
Transformation of the education system therefore requires three linked developments. First, abandoning the system of selective secondary education based on the results of the 11-Plus examination, and adopting the organisation outlined above. Second, the implementation of a comprehensive and rigorous policy for the education of children who experience difficulties learning in schools due to their special needs or disabilities. Third, revamping what is taught at both primary and secondary schools. The first two were the subject of our articles in Barbados TODAY on May 15 and June 4. The third is the focus of this article, as outlined below.
Once the need to focus most of their time and effort on preparing children for the 11-Plus exam has been eliminated, primary school teachers will be able to deliver a more broadly based and relevant curriculum. This will include developing a balance of basic academic skills, including reading, writing and Mathematics, along with the interpersonal skills needed for developing the personal confidence necessary for a successful career and a productive life. With effective special needs policy and procedures in place, teachers will be able to address children’s learning difficulties, gifts and talents, and ensure that all children develop to their maximum potential.
To help them in this task, teachers will be able to use the Criteria Reference Testing recently introduced into primary schools, to target teaching on areas that need to be developed, for individual children as well as for entire classes, thereby ensuring that their teaching is effective in optimizing learning. Criteria Reference Testing is a type of formative evaluation and feedback that has been found by educational research to be one of the most effective strategies for improving educational attainment. The video clips explaining Criteria Referenced Testing that are available on YouTube, courtesy of the Government Information Service, demonstrate effective teaching practice by explaining the use of CRT in schools and provide a useful model of classroom teaching in primary schools. When widely implemented, this will lead to an increase in the proportion of children leaving primary schools with adequate reading, writing and math skills for their secondary education.
In addition to facilitating academic learning, primary school teachers will also be able to focus more on personal and interpersonal skill development through teaching social and emotional learning programmes. In this way, they will be able to focus on the development of the so-called soft skills, including teamwork, communication, time management, conflict resolution and problem-solving skills, that employers consider essential for being successful at work. Also, teachers will be able to use strategies such as Circle Time and peer support programmes to create positive learning environments that prevent disruptive and violent behaviour, reduce bullying to a minimum, and prevent the development of mental health problems.
The result of these changes will be that many more children will be able to move on to secondary school with the basic academic skills, confidence and interpersonal skills needed for success than has been the case under the 11-Plus regime that currently exists.
In addition to teaching academic subjects, secondary schools need to place greater emphasis on more practical as well as technical and vocational education by making these attractive alternative options during the later stages of secondary schooling. So, while all students will study mainly academic subjects with some technical/vocational courses in the first few years of secondary schooling, there should be a point when they have to decide which type of programme to concentrate on. This is the case in many other countries such as Finland, Poland, Germany and the Netherlands (see Schleicher, 2018, free from OECD website).
This could be implemented in Barbados by allowing students to opt whether to follow a curriculum focused on more practical knowledge and skills, such as that required by the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate, or a more technical and vocational education required by the Caribbean Vocational Qualifications, during their fourth and fifth form years. These more practically or vocationally focused curricula would be available alongside the more academically focused curriculum taken by students aiming to sit Caribbean Examination Council examinations.
So, whereas students following an academic programme and sitting CXCs would be aiming to go on to sixth form colleges and then university, those following the technical and vocational route to prepare for taking CVQs would be aiming to go on to institutions such as community colleges, polytechnics or hospitality schools and those following a more practical programme and taking the CSEC will be aiming to leave school at age 16 years to get jobs.
Making the possibility of a choice between academic, practical or technical/vocational programmes a reality will require the employment of more technical teachers and the development of a suite of practical, technical and vocational courses to make up a substantial part of the 4th and 5th form years for those students who opt for these tracks. The expertise for this is available through the TVET Council.
Abandoning the 11-Plus exam, implementing a comprehensive policy for children with learning challenges, and revamping primary and secondary curricula, are key elements of the necessary reform of the education system in Barbados. However, the success of the reform will also depend on two fairly obvious but important factors.
First, there needs to be an upgrade of facilities throughout the secondary school system so that students and parents are assured that every secondary school offers a well equipped and high quality environment for providing academic, practical and technical/vocational education programmes.
Second, there is a need for in-service training of secondary school teachers in effective strategies for educating students with a wide range of abilities. This training can be provided through Erdiston College and the UWI School of Education using a combination of on-campus and on-line courses.
These changes will not be easy to bring about or popular with everyone but it seems that most Barbadians now recognise the need for education reform. Creating a world-class education system that develops the talents of all our young people and prepares the diverse workforce needed to take the country forward in the 21st Century is now an urgent priority.
Garry Hornby has worked as a teacher, educational psychologist and university lecturer and is now an Emeritus Professor of Education, living in Barbados.