Friday, April 19, 2024

OFF CENTRE: Common Entrance – facing the truth


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“I know where he don’t want to go . . . . He don’t want to go to St Leonard’s.” (I may not have got the exact wording, but I know I got the exact thought.)
What could have so twisted national sentiment that on the day of the Common Entrance Exam, on national TV, obviously unedited, without a tinge (or twinge) of social sensibility, someone could so brazenly broadcast her son’s negative feelings? And what put that in his breast?
This woman and her son are not in any minority who have a focus on “getting into” certain secondary schools and not going to others. The water has been poisoned.
And yet, ministers of Government and others are running ’round saying it does not matter which secondary school you go to, that yuh just got to apply yuhself.
Untrue. But especially unrealistic for the seriously underattaining (probably at least 40 per cent of the test takers), and unfair – we make too much depend on them.  
After all, in Barbados the Common Entrance Exam is not about making sure that we send well prepared 11-year-olds on to secondary level.
If it was about broad-based student achievement, our attention would have been focused on whether we managed to get the widest number of students to reach acceptable levels in the tested areas; call-in programmes and the Press would be raining suggestions about how to improve scores in English and mathematics.
The exam is, in fact, about students working for positions in a hierarchy of schools. And so, it not only sets the stage for educational differentiations, it is also a contest for social standing.
One set of people take the champion’s cup and another set are given a virtual dunce’s cap – and many individuals in the latter group have to spend a lifetime fighting off the stigma induced by the educationally and socially dubious use of the exam.
There is danger, too, in bandying about the statement “it doesn’t matter which secondary school you go to”: it implicitly lets the school system – especially primary schools – off the hook, and puts the burden, as is our wont, on an underperforming child and his parent(s)/guardian(s) when there is ample evidence that the school’s input is a pivotal factor in student achievement.
In fact, this student’s failure is, to a not inconsiderable degree, the responsibility of the school he attended, and his future academic prospects will also depend heavily on the efforts of his next school.
This underperforming student, mind you, is going to be placed in a school with almost all similarly underperforming schoolmates, who will probably not be able to offer him much help.
And he now needs interventions that are carefully thought out, adequately provided for and diligently executed so that he can achieve competence in the prerequisite skills and knowledge he is lacking. At the same time, he needs whatever it takes to make sure that he does not fall behind in other subjects, many of which are new to him and depend on the very prerequisites he does not have.
He needs highly motivated, positive teachers (who have already been demotivated and stigmatized because the society sees them as teaching “duncy” children) with the training, systems, processes and equal-to-the-task resources. Lest we forget, he also needs training in perseverance and self-discipline and a variety of other study and self-management skills.   
So the glib statement not only takes no account of the implications of low attainment, it also makes light of the awesome challenge that both little “low marks” Johnny and the secondary school he enters will face to achieve what we can assuredly call academic success.
Props to those who do succeed – but they probably bear an inordinate burden in school, not to mention what awaits them outside of school.
 In spite of all this, people often say that what we have now is the fairest system of allocation to secondary schools. I suggest that they are confusing the words “fairest” and “fairer”. Indeed, it is fairer than the previous approach, when considerations of class and race ruled the day.
But you have not achieved the greatest triumph simply because you have removed those socio-economic factors. You now have to devise a system that adequately addresses profound education, psychological and community concerns.
So, while we rest prematurely on our laurels, smugly saying “It’s better than what we had”, we create new outcasts and new elites and splinter our society and drape ourselves in gowns of latter day unsmartness about educational truths that others have apprehended.  
 Sherwyn Walters is a writer who became a teacher, a song analyst, a broadcaster and an editor. Email

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