In principle, we support the abolition of an elitist system that only rewards a child’s mere academic performance and ignores the multiple facets of cognitive ability, emotional intelligence and soft skills and habits required to turn him or her into productive adult citizens.
In principle, then, the common entrance examination does not pass muster. We have not a doubt that it must be replaced.
But statements of ‘repeal and replace’ invariably are met with a very pragmatic Barbadian response – replace with what?
And it is a question we must now ask the Minister of Education. On the day that she announced that this may be the last year of the sitting of the 11-plus exam – the “screening test” – for entrance into secondary school, we expected to hear a clear policy direction on what will follow for the cohort of students who will be prepared come September for next year’s assessment.
Barbadian politicians and senior civil servants have traditionally been renowned for their pragmatism. At least, the very best ones have been pragmatists because they reflect the pragmatic nature of the thousands of us who sent them to higher office.
We are a practical people. The mere expression of a principle is not enough. It must be followed by the setting out of a clear and unambiguous process of change, complete with justification of the steps.
Today, the Minister of Education, in seeking to do the right thing, put the proverbial cart before the horse. And now, the horse has bolted from the stable, leaving us with an empty cart, in which to put ideas for how to go about the matriculation of 11-year-old primary school students to high school.
We submit that a process of consultation, public and private, should have commenced and concluded long before today’s announcement.
In short, we should not have to hear the Government of Barbados say to us: “We are abolishing a system upon which the fate of thousands of young lives depends, and we haven’t quite figured out from you, the voter what you really want, so we don’t have a clue yet how we are going about that abolition.” No points for candour here.
It may well be that the people of Barbados want the perpetuation of an elitist system that pits child against child and condemns many children to a life of low expectations and even less income based on a single sitting in a single period at a singular place, rather than a wider assessment of a child’s aptitude and attitude over a longer period of time.
It is almost as if the Government is setting itself up for failure. They can easily say, well, we tried but we didn’t get the response we wanted so we’ll just continue the status quo. This too is unacceptable.
The first and most difficult hurdle to leap over is that of teachers and principals.
We already have seen resistance among teachers even to contributing to an information system that will help track students’ progress and diagnose their problems.
We already have seen parents and teachers who are comfortable with making the lives of students as uncomfortable as possible by teaching them to a test.
What should have happened today was the setting out of short-term actions and long-term options.
We propose, then, that the Ministry of Education embark on a process of long-term assessment of students. This will require support of teachers for a school-based assessment system. The Caribbean Examinations Council has already created such a primary exit assessment ‘exam’ for the Eastern Caribbean states. It is a model worth considering as an initial, short-term replacement for 2022.
It is palpably unfair to 11-year-old children to expect their whole lives to depend on one day.
So much can go wrong in such a short space of time.
So many other things need to change in the short and medium-term in our education system to make replacing the common entrance exam a practical reality. These include the embrace of other learning styles, a shift away from chalk and talk, overcrowded classrooms – and underpaid and overworked teachers. We are reluctant even to introduce phonics to the teaching of reading. Parent-teacher collaboration is sporadic at best and discouraged at worst depending on the school and its neighbourhood.
So the interim involves the bringing up of mothers and fathers to understand that it is in their best interest that we put the common entrance exam firmly into the dustbin of history. We are not satisfied by the minister’s cavalier statement in the House of Assembly, with no clear direction, plan, idea and purpose.
Simply saying that we’ll let the people decide is not good enough. It is like submitting the future direction of this nation to a focus group when we have not provided any ideas as to what we want the nation-state to look like in the future.
Organisations, institutions and individuals with competing interests will now be vying for the attention of the minister in the coming weeks and months. There will be a strong cry for the status quo to continue, thereby eventually reducing opportunities for post-secondary and university education. This nation’s continued support for an elitist Barbados Scholarship after 140 years and the increasing segregation within our school system in which the children of the poor get inferior schooling is a shameful blot on our character as a people.
It may well be that the process may take longer to arrive at a form of post-primary education that is in the best interests of our nation’s future. But let’s be practical first. It must begin by taking parents, teachers and guardians into the confidence of the Ministry of Education to ask what mirror image do we want to have of ourselves?
After the common entrance exam will have ended, what manner of child do we want to become a productive member of our society? What are the qualities that will be required to help them create and occupy jobs that have not even yet been invented? How then will they be prepared and assessed?
An agenda for change must still be an agenda, not a ‘Hail Mary’ pass in which the football being tossed is that of our 11-year-old children.