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by Ralph Jemmott
The official nomenclature is the Barbados Secondary School Entrance Examination (BSSEE), but it is more commonly known as the Common Entrance Exam or the Eleven Plus Exam. It is about to be abolished.
Education Minister Santia Bradshaw in her Press Conference of Wednesday June 9, stated that the Examination, ‘has outlived its usefulness.’ She did not offer a specific date for its demise, but it is clear that the present Barbados Labour Party administration in its consummate wisdom, wants it gone, and as soon as is feasibly possible.
The BSSEE which was introduced in 1959 has been blamed for nearly every evil in Barbados. It is blamed for crime and violence, for socio-economic inequalities and even economic stagnation. It is not so much the examination itself that is blamed. It is more the fact that based on the exam’s results, children are placed in different schools in a schooling system that is differentiated and hierarchical structured, in terms of the esteem with which various institutions are regarded.
As in most capitalist democratic societies, schooling system tends to reflect the stratification in the socio-economic order. Children are born into very materially and culturally different conditions, some that enable and advance and others that retard educational attainment.
That is the result of the economic order we call Capitalism which tends to distribute its rewards unevenly. This is not to say that we should seek to exacerbate these inequalities.
In a democratic polity that ostensibly embraces inclusiveness, we should seek to diminish the grosser forms of socio-economic inequality.
My own secular sensibilities tell me that gargantuan wealth should not exist side by side with grinding poverty. That however is a question of political economy and yes, social and personal morality.
In 1959, the Common Entrance was regarded as a democratising educational strategy. In Western societies, ‘Meritocracy’ based on ability, as opposed to prescriptive and ascriptive values based on race, skin colour and social class was part of the Liberal-democratic hope of the post-war period.
In Barbados the democratic ethos was significantly advanced when the fee paying structure was abolished by Mr. Errol Barrow in January of 1962. Dr. Anthony Layne once joked that, “the elite of the brain had now replaced the elite of the skin and the pocket-book.” Brain or pocket-book, there seems to be some degree of elitism in material culture.
Times have changed and the Eleven Plus is now seen by its critics as a bastion of discriminatory bourgeois privilege. Professor Joel Warrican likens it to a ‘Beast,’ in his words, “perpetuating an injustice”. He is quoted as saying: “children from certain backgrounds are awarded places in prestigious schools, while others are farmed out to schools that are under-resourced and undervalued.”
He concluded with typical hyperbole, that the system “plays havoc with the mental and psychological state of students.” If this were true, it would mean that the students that I taught at the Parkinson School between 1963 and 1967 are presumably languishing in mental sanitaria somewhere.
If the 11-Plus is to be abolished, it must be done with the calm and gravitas which such a monumental change deserves and not on hysteria and social envy.
The case is often overstated by those unacquainted with the schools. Research coming out of the School of Education many years ago did show that there were differences in class background between students at Harrison and Queen’s College and those at some of the newer secondary schools.
Class in that study was based on parental backgrounds, the prime distinction being drawn between manual and non-manual workers. Many children attending schools like HC are not middle class. It might surprise readers to know that a not insignificant number of HC pupils receive breakfast and lunch through the School Meals program.
There are now relatively few white upper class children attending that school. As the Covid crisis is showing, the local middle class is a marginal class. By and large, it does not represent a substantive propertied elite. One makes the case because one of the criticisms of the Common Entrance test is that it perpetuates social class differences.
Social class stratification is primarily a function of the economic system, not of the education system, although, as we all know, schooling can promote or retard social mobility. One of the arguments put forward by those in England who favoured the abolition of the Eleven Plus and the end to Grammar schools was that it would diminish social class distinctions.
British society remains as stratified as it ever was. Of course the British never abolished the aristocratic public schools such as Eton, Harrow, Winchester, Rugby and the like. We have to be careful that we do not make changes to remedy a problem that does not exist or put in place options that do not solve those that do.
The Eleven plus is not a creator of social class difference and it certainly will not eliminate such. Let us hope that this is not a case of political posturing such as taking down Nelson or declaring a Republic, neither of which has had substantive consequence. Radical change to education, if not properly thought out may be difficult to ‘walk back.’
An examination at ten or eleven is vital for two reasons. Firstly it gives the students something to aim at as a motivating force. Contrary to popular fiction it is not a death knell for either students or parents. I myself favour standard continuous assessments at seven, nine and eleven as diagnostic tests to gauge on-going performance and provide remedial measures at each stage.
The second reason is the fact that we have to know where to place students entering what Dennis Craig calls “the secondary cycle”. If there was no test at all there would still be those who have mastered the primary curriculum and are fit to go on to the secondary. These would be those who currently obtain 98 per cent in English and 99 per cent in Maths.
There would still be those who for one reason or another obtain below 25 per cent. If we in Ms. Mottley’s cherished words, “go the whole hog” and introduce total zoning, the effect would be to make all schools “comprehensive” with the wide range of abilities, from the highly gifted to the very slow.
There would still have to be some differentiation in placement at the secondary stage. I cannot imagine that anyone would think that a gifted child who scores 100 per cent in Maths, would be placed in the same class as a very slow learner who scored 15 per cent, unless the purpose was political egalitarianism and cosmetic window dressing.
If you want to say that with zoning any child can go to Harrison or Queen’s, that might sound good, but it would not in itself advance the chances of a child with socio-economic disadvantages and cognitive deficits. Why would Barbadian society want to alter the character of its top schools merely out of social envy and political posturing.
The “Whole Hog” would have to offer the poor working class child remedial compensatory schooling sufficient to his or her needs. Ultimately the state would have to work to improve the conditions of life of a significant number of those children.
This is not an easy task. Too many politicians pander to the working class for the class vote, knowing full well that they have no intention or capacity of changing the capitalist economic system that promotes the grosser inequalities
of living conditions.
Inequalities in education provisioning in Barbados stem from the historical tendency to privilege the academic over technical and vocational schooling. A lot of money has been poured into university tuition to build up an impressive infrastructure.
This is because the possession of a university degree is more highly regarded and is called for by the higher echelons in the society who want upper mobility into the white collar professions. Significantly less has been invested in vocational schooling for children of parents who are less visible and less vocal in their advocacy.
A small economy such as Barbados cannot satisfy all the legitimate educational aspirations of all its children, but it must strike an equitable balance. Historically the poor working class child’s education has been sacrificed. He or she is pushed into the D streams of the primary system with insufficient remedial intervention.
He or she goes on to the secondary level to pursue an academic education to which he or she is hardly suited. At sixteen many go onto the block where they can become caught up in the pathologies of a toxic masculinity, in the search for cheap thrills and easy money.
The Skills Training program is an excellent project but Barbados should have built a large trade school for students exiting the lower rungs of the comprehensive schools. In the way that the able child goes from grammar school to university and beyond. The less academically able child, leaving school at 16, should be forced to attend trade school pursuant of a skill of his own choosing. The skills trading programme must be expanded exponentially.
If Barbados is to salvage its school system, it must first salvage its social system. The qualitative failure in the local educational system is irrevocably linked to a decline in communal values reflected in the wide society. As Colm Brogan has stated, an education system does not much rise above the culture of which it is a part and within which it functions.
All the evidence suggests that we are beginning to inhabit a very toxic culture as we sat back and allowed the ZR culture to destroy the ethos of nearly all of our educational institutions.
The Education Sector Enhancement Programme, ‘Edutech,’ promised us ‘a learning revolution.’ No amount of reform will improve education across the board unless the present toxic culture in which schools operate is reversed.
Ralph Jemmott is a respected retired educator.