My support for the abolition of the Common Entrance Examination is well known, but because education does not respond well to quick fixes and tampering, one has to be careful with the nature and implementation of an alternative which, if we get wrong, can do irreparable damage to the system.
Any change in the method of transfer currently used requires a radical reorganisation of public transport. If students are to be transferred to secondary schools that are within easy access, there would be a need for a dedicated school bus service moving from designated points to each of the 21 secondary schools in the island. We can no longer have a situation where, in St. Philip, for example, pupils living in Belair have to take two buses or walk to the Princess Margaret Secondary School. School buses would have to pass through or near the residential areas of that parish all bound for the secondary school and back in the evening. This should apply throughout the country.
To ensure safety and reliability, transport should be state owned. The problems with Public Service vehicles (PSVs) have been thoroughly ventilated and need not be rehashed here. Government needs to make the bold, but necessary decision to provide buses for the student population and end the threats to the welfare of our children posed by the ZR subculture.
Very importantly, primary education should be revamped. Concentration on two subjects in preparation for the 11+ has to give way to teaching subjects which also include Social Studies/Civics, Conversational Spanish, Science, Health, Music, Art & Craft, Drama and Comparative Religious Education. Built into the programme should be the remediation of weaknesses revealed in diagnostic tests done at ages seven and nine. A test at age 11 should be used to determine whether students have mastered the foundational skills required for them to be transferred to secondary school, not to decide which school they should be allocated to.
Primary education should, once again, be enjoyable with a wise mix of academics, practical work, aesthetics and sporting activities. The present focus on earning the distinction of having one’s school placed in the top ten in terms of Common Entrance results has led to the distortion of the school curriculum and has killed the joy of being in primary school.
When I was a primary school pupil, despite the occasional corporal punishment, learning was fun. On afternoons, we enjoyed Mental Arithmetic, Spelling, Dictation, but especially reciting poems, singing and dramatisation. School was also about gardening and playing. Yet, the academically gifted pupils moved on to the secondary level without fuss or fanfare. Another area of concern is the giving of lessons in periods of vacation. Children should be allowed to use their vacation for enjoyable activities, not being pumped with further doses of Maths and English. Primary education ought to be concerned with the early stages of education for creative and productive living.
Another area of concern crying out for attention is the sidelining of children with special needs. A cadre of teachers must be trained to identify and treat learning difficulties early, and the school must ensure that all students, no matter their disabilities, are fully integrated in the life of the school. We must start with the premise that all children can learn if given the right motivation and assistance. I think that, with the distraction of the 11+ out of the way, more students will develop their potential and there would be fewer 11-year-olds with unacceptably low literacy and numeracy skills.
Once the transportation problems are remedied and our primary schools allowed to function as they should, a new system of transfer to secondary school can be implemented. I offer two proposals, the second of which I must give credit for, to the former principal of the Princess Margaret Secondary School, Dr Wismore Butcher.
As I have suggested before, we could turn four or five of our secondary schools into sixth form colleges while the others take pupils from determined catchment areas. After the third form, discussion among teachers, parents and students would determine whether pupils continue on to fifth form or be transferred to Technical/Vocational institutions to study a skill of their choosing along with English, Mathematics, Civics, Comparative Religion, Basic Spanish or French and Physical Education. Entrance to sixth form and Community College would be based, as is currently the case, on CSEC results.
The other option is for the Common Entrance to remain, with parents being given a choice of two schools. Failure to qualify for entry to either of the two schools selected would result in the child going to a secondary school within easy access. The present sixth forms would remain, and the optional transfer to Technical/Vocational institutions after third form, already mentioned, would be implemented. Regardless of the system of transfer agreed on, the authorities must ensure that Sports, Culture and Technical/Vocational studies are given as much attention as purely academic courses.
The current method of transfer from primary to secondary school has to end if we want to create an educational system that focuses on the needs of our diverse student population. I do not think there is now much doubt among social thinkers about the close link between education and some of the deviancy now tearing our society apart. Young people who feel that the system has failed to equip them for living in their own country are not likely to be committed to that country’s development. When the feeling of alienation and frustration is added to challenges at home, we have a recipe for violence and other forms of delinquency. The need for comprehensive reform is urgent.