The Jeff Cumberbatch Column – A Recurring Decimal
The expression used at caption has found its way into the local vernacular to describe not merely the repetition of a number or series of numbers in the dividend such as when 1/3 or 1/7 is converted to decimal form but, less accurately, the too frequent re-emergence of a person or issue. Concerning the latter, I have remarked in this space on more occasions than a few, on the apparent local propensity to raise and re-circulate some matters of public discourse without ever coming to a definitive resolution of them one way or another. As a columnist, I am certainly not complaining since it provides some ready weekly fodder, but it is scarcely effective.
The list is indeed a long one -the policy of the imposition of the death penalty; the decriminalization of homosexual acts between consenting adults; the reform of our defamation laws; the establishment of a freedom of information culture and a condign statute; improved regulation of the privately owned public transportation sector; public and private sector integrity; a Contractor-General; the modern relevance of an Upper House of Parliament; and, finally, today’s topic, the inutility of the common entrance exam, more popularly known as the Eleven-plus or, even more officially and loftily, as the Barbados Secondary School Entrance Examination [BSEE].
Truth to tell, this issue is not as yet entered firmly into the current national discourse, but I read a newspaper report last week, in which my Cave Hill Campus colleague, Professor Joel Warrican, Director of the School of Education, lists this examination first among those conditions that “inhibit the fight of our young citizens to strengthen the resilience of the regional citizenry”. In the report, Professor Warrican appears to be more concerned with the “large proportion of students who do not meet the expected standards and the consequent stratification of the secondary school system created by the manner in which the results of the Common Entrance Examination are used to allocate students to schools, leading to “the marginalization of students who are allocated to ‘bad’ (sic) schools”.
I suppose that the first question that would be asked of the professor is the basis on which a school is to be assessed as “bad”, an adjective that is scarcely ever heard in popular local parlance. I am prepared to concede, however, that there exists in that argot the notion of “good” schools, so it seems conceivable that there must also be, comparatively, some not-so-good and even some bad ones, although it is unclear on what basis these designations are to be made.
As one who believes, errantly or otherwise, that I owe the nature of my current existence largely to my result in the Common Entrance Examination in the late 1960’s, I am naturally inclined to the view that it is the fairest system of transferring youngsters to secondary school, especially given the horror stories recounted of what obtained before, where it was not unknown for some to pass the examination only to fail the subsequent “interview” that was totally unrelated to the child’s academic prowess, but merely to his or her social standing and material comforts. Given my condition at eleven, it is at least doubtful whether I could have passed the interview component, never mind my performance in the academic aspect, hence the existence of my current bias.
Of course, one supposes that the nature and content of the examination itself could be adjusted; for instance, transfer from primary to secondary school might be effected at a later age and the element of continuous assessment by coursework constituting one aspect of the final mark, as now obtains in the regional secondary schools and UWI examinations clearly has a role to play. Concomitantly, the question begs asking, is assessment on the basis of prowess in English language and mathematics only a useful indicator of ability to cope academically at the secondary level?
The truth remains however, that the concept of examination remains the most common mode of determining progress at most levels of education. The first year student in the Bachelor of Laws programme at UWI cannot progress to the second year without having achieved success by examination in a sufficient number of his or her Part One courses, similarly to progress to the third year, and to the first and second years at Law School respectively. One would also have to pass examinations to become a certified butcher, baker or candlestick maker, so the notion of progress by examination is not inherently noisome.
The true problem with the BSEE is not the examination itself, rather it is what populism makes of it. The students who gain top placement in the BSEE are more lauded and feted initially and for a longer period by a fawning press than those who acquire terminal degrees in subjects of national development value. They inevitably become the darlings of their teachers and the parents bask vicariously in the achievement of their offspring, at least until a new cadre replaces the “top ten” the following year.
There is, strangely enough, no similar press follow-up for the BSEE high achiever unless she or she goes on to be a success otherwise. Indeed, the examination itself is made into a national spectacle with televised and newspaper interviews and parents and their young charges after the event, gifts of examination materials, complete with the obligatory news coverage by the ubiquitous politician; and special events put on by local restaurants for those who can afford it. And the outcomes of the BSEE persevere well into adulthood here where many individuals are often described by reference to their secondary school rather than to their tertiary affiliation.
In any ensuing public discourse on this matter, the onus is clearly on those who would seek to replace the BSEE with another form of transfer to propose it and to justify its existence in what is claimed to be a meritocratic polity. Given the current state of affairs, any system that is less objective than an examination arguably runs the risk of being categorized as discriminatory to some among us as the pernicious old “interview”