The Jeff Cumberbatch Column – An Uncommon Entrance
“Things turn out best for people who make the best of the way things turn out”. –Anonymous
The fact that it still exists as the principal mode of transferring pupils from the primary to the secondary stage of education nearly fifty years since I myself sat it in 1968 and despite the numerous strictures levelled against it through the decades, is a clear indication not only of the Barbadian cultural aversion to change but also of the fact that the suggested replacements are not that cogent to the controllers.
Of course, that is not to say that there have not been some minor adjustments. The entire process has, for instance, taken on a much more humanizing patina. The screening (screaming) test or Part One that weeded out some of the weaker students has gone, and with it the notion that to “pass” the examination meant the pupil had to succeed in gaining entry into one of what are now called the older secondary schools only. And it is now rather impressively titled the Barbados Secondary Schools Entrance Examination (BSSEE). These days, there is one examination comprising English Language, Mathematics and Composition and a child passes so long as he or she is placed in a secondary school.
From all accounts, based on the hearsay evidence that I have acquired over the years, the current process is itself a vast improvement on its predecessor where, I have been told, it was possible to pass the examination but to fail the “interview” that sought to place the pupil into a certain social category by taking into account patently irrelevant considerations such as the family’s sleeping and bathing arrangements, to put it euphemistically.
Since I am of a later vintage, I cannot confirm the accuracy of this method of selection, but from what I have read of the Barbados of that era, it is not at all improbable. Indeed, in the community where I grew up, I learnt of some unfortunate souls who had fallen victim to this officially condoned system of apartness.
It may be the fear of a return to this sorry state of affairs that accounts mainly for the modern official intransigence to reform the system and to adopt any alternative that might be less objective than a closed-book examination for which the pupil has been prepared for at least two years.
The plain truth that everyone is seemingly reluctant to accept, in spite of the evidence, is that it does not really matter in the long run which school one passes for. In other words, there is no necessary linear relation between one’s secondary school and his or her future prospects or earning capacity. This is of course a hard sell, given the acclaim accorded by officialdom and the local media to the results of this examination. It is at least peculiar that the results of an examination in English and basic Mathematics sat by eleven year olds should command as much press coverage and their public declaration by the Minister with responsibility for Education himself. There is even a top ten as if it were some competition rather than simply a process for graduation to secondary school. And this bespeaks nothing of those parents who congregate outside the examination centres to gain a first hand account from the child of the easiness or hardness of the papers.
However, there are more than a few well-known individuals that would have “failed” this examination and yet would have risen to great heights in their respective chosen vocations while there are some less well-known nationally who have become “superannuated” somewhere in the “good” school a mere three or four years after their crowning achievement.
None of this has had any impact on the popular perception of the importance of the examination and each year there will be press coverage of some child who, despite the odds, managed to pass for the school of his or her choice. And of those who, in spite of crushed hopes in their time, went on to achieve success in one of the traditional professions or trades or went abroad and excelled in academia. All of which might be instructive, if only we are willing to take note.
Sometimes, the narrative becomes bizarre. I read this weekend in another section of the press of one pupil who was hugely disappointed that she had passed for Harrison College instead of Christ Church Foundation that is nearer to her home. Of course, depending on the reader’s alma mater, this reaction might or might not be thought odd, but it may supply nevertheless a teaching moment for our education officials as to another mode of transfer to secondary education that might be considered, that is, according to the secondary school that is nearest to one’s home.
I feel certain that this proposal is not original, though it seems never to have been given serious consideration. This is unsurprising given the probable catchment areas of Harrison College, the old Queens College and of St Michael School, but it is worthy of a rethink, especially if combined with some regard still being paid to the marks achieved in the examination.
Not only would this serve to confirm the often made but only partially true assertion that all secondary schools are the same but it would also afford the child the opportunity to a wider range of intellects and personalities, much as it is in the world that he or she will inhabit at university and in adult life.
It should not be thought that this partial zoning is the only alternative possible. Other suggestions such as that of transferring children to secondary school at fourteen years of age since there is no magic to the attainment of one’s eleventh birthday and the notion of specialty secondary schools are worthy of s deeper consideration. Perhaps the mode of continuous assessment is too subjective to be a priority in a society that hews towards egalitarianism, but the matter should be subjected to public debate and conversation.
Once we believe that we may be able to effect a more equitable method of transfer from primary to secondary school, we should not let the discrimination of the previous system cause us to believe that what we have now is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.