This newspaper feels compelled to return to the Government’s announcement that the Barbados Secondary School Entrance Examination (BSSEE), best known as the Common Entrance Examination or the 11-plus, may soon be a thing of the past.
This has naturally evoked a strong response from both the “abolitionists” and those who wish to maintain the status quo, thus meriting our additional, detailed attention.
In making her announcement, Minister of Education Santia Bradshaw said: “We are hoping that this would be the last cohort of students that will participate in the 11-plus examination, and if that is the case, then once we start in March, it is intended that we spend a few months in discussion with the entire country and be able to formulate a programme going forward for implementation in 2021.”
This seems like too short a timeline. Government backbencher Ralph Thorne noted: “Barbadians have invested heavily, both financially and emotionally, into the Common Entrance Examination over the years, and there are parents and teachers presently preparing their Class 2 and Class 3 children for an exam in 2021.”
Barbados Union of Teachers President Sean Spencer was also of the view that the time frame is not long enough, stating: “We were expecting that it would be a case of establishing a framework and then between two to five years, we would see a gradual implementation.”
Spencer made the point that the challenges within the education system go beyond the Common Entrance Examination. “We have deficits in terms of assessing children whose reading scores are below the accepted level and these issues are not addressed by way of adequate resources,” he said. “Redefining the way in which children move from primary to secondary school is not going to resolve that issue.”
We welcome the fact that a committee has been set up within the Ministry of Education to address the matter and is planning a series of meetings across the country. We also take note that the minister said an email address will also be set up to receive Barbadians’ comments but what will happen after that? All too often these “consultations” sometimes appear to be a mere formality. We hope that is not the case here.
In the absence of an exam, parents ask whether they will be given a form where they can list their choices and if the children will be allocated based on their scores at the primary level or strictly the proximity of the school to their homes or their parents’ workplaces.
Given societal stigmas attached to our secondary schools for generations, along with their track records in academic and other pursuits, we are certain these schools will want to maintain their standards. That means, as was done in the past, we may revert to a situation where they hold individual entrance examinations and offer scholarships to the children who perform well in them. So what would we have accomplished by abolishing one national exam if we end up paving the way for at least 23 more?
There is some precedent for making what would be considered radical changes to elements of the education system. In the 1990/91 academic year, the University of the West Indies implemented a semester system to replace the traditional three-term academic year. Under the old system, courses ran for a year and final exams came in term three, whereas the semester system would see courses lasting for only one semester with the final exam coming at the end of that semester. The following semester, the student would take on some new courses. UWI made the transition easier by allowing the second and third-year students to continue their year-long courses, and as the 1990/91 cohort moved through their degree programmes, the second and third-year courses took on the semester format.
There is an old adage, “measure twice, cut once”. Tailors and carpenters lived by the maxim that suggested you measure material twice before you cut it. Cutting off too much or too little could ruin the finished product. The Common Entrance Examination and our whole education system may have its flaws, but the exam has become an accepted norm and has served its purpose well. Therefore, any changes we want to make must be carefully thought out and done over a prolonged period of time; the few months between March this year and May 2021 are not long enough.
Given that parents and teachers are working diligently to prepare children for the 11-plus in 2021 and 2022, any plans to abolish it and set up any new assessment system must start with those now entering Reception class. In other words, we need to measure our education system, determine what our future needs are, how we plan to get there and implement those plans before cutting off any existing elements prematurely.