A political scientist and former University of the West Indies (UWI) Cave Hill graduate is contending that the Barbados Secondary Schools Entrance Exam (BSSEE), commonly referred to as the 11-plus exam, was creating “educational ghettos” and a certain level of “snobbery”.
Peter Wickham made the comments while taking part in a panel discussion on Developing Education that is Fit for Purpose on Wednesday night at the regional institution which he attended from 1990 to 1994. The event was organized by the university’s Office of Alumni Relations.
Wickham expressed the view that part of the purpose of education was to prepare different types of workers and support individuals’ journey through life, but based on the emphasis on 11-plus exam in primary schools, CXC exams in the secondary school setting, and degrees at the tertiary learning institutions, that did not seem to be the case.
“I have often felt that the role of education is to identify what as a child you are good at and help you to nurture those skills as best as you possibly can in the system,” said Wickham.
However, he added, “we have a challenge where our education system essentially revolves around this primary experience which is all about an 11-plus exam, which in my view, is the root of the problems that we are facing . . . . It is difficult for us to talk about education being fit for a purpose without understanding the role that this 11-plus exam plays in the whole process, because that clearly is at the source of a number of the problems that we have”.
Recalling that a former principal of the Graydon Sealy Secondary School was a supporter of corporal punishment “in an environment where you can’t possibly learn anything”, the university graduate said: “The 11-plus ultimately creates educational ghettos. I am not being offensive to anybody’s school, but I am being realistic and saying that it creates educational ghettos.”
Wickham, who has in the past called for the 11-plus to be shelved, said he did not see the need for a discussion on something to replace the examination when there were enough places for everyone entering secondary school.
He pointed out that the origin of the exam was a time when there were limited resources to educate everyone and officials did not want to “run the risk of sacrificing the achievers”.
“So, you basically administered an exam which seemed to be fair because everyone, regardless of their economic background, had the opportunity to enter a grammar school and to be able to have the best opportunities in life. And I appreciate that was a time, but that was probably appropriate. I think we have gone way past that, but we are still struggling with this essential burden that we have placed on ourselves, called 11-plus. It is the root of certainly many problems,” he said.
“When you move from there to the secondary school and you have excellence being defined in terms of CXC, CAPE and a number of subjects, the level of academic snobbery that starts with the 11-plus is taken forward into that level because it is about a number of subjects, a particular type of subjects, and you need to get those in order to move on. As I said, it introduces a certain level of snobbery,” he insisted.
Saying that he was not ashamed to say he was dyslexic, the political consultant contended it was irrational to think that the solution to the problem of all children in a learning institution finding it difficult to learn was to “teach the teachers how to deal with those challenges”.
“That is foolishness, because a part of the challenge is the environment that is created. So, in order to fix the problem we also need to fix the environment, and I am saying that you can’t start with that [11-plus exam] and then move people into a secondary school where you have created an environment that is not conducive to learning and then say we need to fix the problem by training teachers and paying them well. It is just not going to work,” he insisted.
Wickham also argued that the way in which scholarships were offered made “absolutely no sense” to him. He said it was flawed and seemed to be focused on producing doctors and lawyers instead of being fit for purpose
He argued that the education system should instead be producing people that the workforce and the country needed so they could make the contribution that was necessary to spur growth and create opportunities.
“Therefore, I like a scholarship system that rewards people based on what the society needs,” he said.
In relation to the tertiary level education, Wickham also suggested that the types of degrees being offered should be reviewed, adding that individuals should be able to pursue a degree based on need and not “just to say you have a degree”.
He further suggested that the education system would need strong leadership and governance if the island was to create an education system that was fit for purpose.