The views and opinions expressed by the author(s) do not represent the official position of Barbados TODAY.
by Ralph Jemmott
A headline in the Press of September 7 read “Plus Sign” and much of the content dealt with matters pertaining to the results of the 2021 Common Entrance Examination. Excellence is laudable in any sphere of human endeavour.
Congrats to all those who performed at their best and more specifically to Master Jeremiah Browne and Miss Elena Bohne on their top performances. All students should be reminded that their education does not begin and end with the Eleven Plus.
My own attention focused on remarks attributed to Education Minister Santia Bradshaw, Chief Education officer Ramona Archer-Bradshaw and Director of the Education Reform Unit Idamay Denny. Could it be that the 2021 Eleven Plus test was the last of its kind? Dr. Denny is reported as saying: “As the Prime Minister said and as I have said previously, our intention was to move away from the Common Entrance Exam.”
The big question has always been, what exactly is to replace it? It may be typical of the way certain things are now done in this country that changes are announced with little idea as to how the prevailing system will be altered and with what consequences, intended or unintended.
Prime Minister Mia Mottley earlier stated that when she was Minister of Education she introduced a system of ‘partial zoning’ and that it was now her intention to “go the whole hog.” No one knows what would constitute “the whole hog”, but presumably it means total zoning.
This would suggest, for lack of a better term, a ‘comprehensivisation’ of all schools, with all institutions taking in the widest range of abilities, academic and otherwise. This would constitute the most revolutionary change to Barbados’ educational institutional structure since the Nicholson initiative of the 1870’s. The Report that bears Nicholson’s name introduced the hierarchical system of education that has survived with some modifications to this day.
Like with Republican status, we still don’t know what awaits us. So far there is nothing even remotely operationally coming out of the Education reform program, but these are early days yet. Some kind of blueprint is promised as early as September 30. Has anybody ever enquired as to what percentage of parents in Barbados want to abolish the Eleven Plus and how many do not? One wonders if the reformers understand the complexities of the undertaking on which they have embarked.
It is surprising that we are making such comprehensive changes even as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on. If the current figures continue to increase, it is unlikely that there will be face to face teaching in the coming Michaelmas term. The risks are simply too great. Examining the topic of Education in a post-COVID world, former U.S. Education Secretary Arnie Duncan noted that the U.S. was entering the third school year impacted by the pandemic.
In that period he suggested that some 2.5 million children “did not transition to virtual schooling”, in his words, “they Just disappeared”. It is clear that on-line schooling cannot deliver education to children in any degree similar to face to face teaching. This is true particularly on the affective and social levels. As Duncan concluded: “Children are social beings.” It appears that COVID will be around for a while as we continue to live in difficult and confounding times.
There are some seemingly beneficial reform ideas being considered. One is the notion of a lower first for the weaker students entering the secondary level. Lower first classes should focus on strengthening the basic literacy and numeracy skills required for future learning.
The curriculum at this level should not be over- burdened with content. Another good idea is allowing fifth formers who can benefit from an extra year to repeat the fifth year. This will be on the condition of appropriate academic and behavioural probity. Senior students who bully younger pupils, sell drugs or are overtly rude and threatening to teacher should be forced to leave or sent to Reform School. As R.V. Goodridge used to say: “Schools teach values by the standards they uphold.” The problem with schools in Barbados as with Barbados as a whole is that we appear reluctant to hold to a standard.
The Reformers will have to decide how we will transfer students from the primary to the secondary cycle. Most favour some form of continuous assessment, preferably at ages seven, nine and eleven.
There has to be some kind of tests to see if, how and when the primary cohorts are mastering the primary curriculum.
In addition, continuous assessment could be used to enhance remediation as required. If all schools will reflect a wide range of abilities, will there be streaming or will the student who now receives the equivalent of 98 in Maths and 96 in English, with an A grade in the essay be seated in the same class as a student who receives below 25 per cent? Streaming or tracking is not a bad thing given the level of cognitive differences that exist between children. A moderator who would have abolished Eleven Plus ‘ages ago’ once said send every child to the school nearby, and all the children will learn. What pontifical rubbish! Children’s cognitive growth is a consequence of many factors.
These include genetic inherited ability, cultural and materialeconomic wellbeing and the child’s personal and parental motivation. It seems to have taken the fact that some children not only lacked internet connectivity but no electricity, to awaken persons to the inequalities of living conditions that exist among children. They apparently never knew that some children go to bed hungry and awake to very little.
There is talk of some form of middle school, but few seem to know what form that entity would take. If one educator is right, it will not be a separate institution. Will it then be the same as the so-called Lower-School within the present secondary set-up? Instead of addressing these practicalities, education officials seem over concerned with articulating a lot of theoretical absurdities and pedagogical jargon to which the discourse on education is too often subjected.
Abolition of the Eleven Plus and instituting total zoning may cause more problems than it solves. Any hoped for benefits may turn out to be tangential and ephemeral with few real changes in across the board outcomes.
Ralph Jemmott is a respected retired educator.