WHAT MATTERS MOST: Let 11-Plus be – until . . .
History is replete with examples of people, such as Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan and Bill Gates, to name a few, who were prejudged and assessed as ones least likely to succeed. Typically, they did not fit the mould of the stereotypes who had succeeded in their chosen fields. Fortunately, time expands the mould and the characteristics of the stereotypes.
In most cases, such assessments would have been made by a single person or institution. It is therefore easy to blame the latter, when the real failure is the list of criteria used in the assessment. The usual shortcoming in the list is its inability to measure the present and/or future character of the individual.
This brings me to our educational system. There will never be a better way than the current 11-Plus Examination to fairly allocate primary students to secondary schools until all schools are equal at both levels.
The emphasis here is on fairly. Imagine the damage that will be done if a single individual or institution is allowed to determine the future of a child based on stereotypical characteristics.
The only thing that should inform how children are allocated to schools at the secondary level is merit. In the absence of examinations, assessment should be done on merit, which has to be quantified to eliminate subjective opinion. Quantifying means assigning a value to the quality of work done. Ultimately, a number or grade is the best way, even in the absence of examinations.
It follows that getting rid of the 11-Plus Examination does not mean getting rid of assessment. Since at the primary school level, it is typical to have one teacher per class, then the responsibility for assessment will fall on one person at each stage along the way. This is partly the danger. Such a system may very well lead to earlier allocation based on merit, even in the absence of an examination.
In the 11-Plus, there is one examination for assessment not set by an individual teacher. This removes the total influence of one teacher or institution on the success of the child. There is not yet a fairer way to begin the allocation of the limited spaces at the secondary level.
There is obviously a lack of fairness if the preparation at the primary level is not equal. Somehow, there is little emphasis on this, and so it is okay if the better performing primary schools are allowed to cater to some.
Now think about a private primary school, where the parents pay for the preparation. Then think about a system without the 11-Plus where the allocation comes purely from assessment at the school. It does require me to ask you to think about how much more subjective the system becomes, given the potent combination of money and merit based on greater subjectivity and less transparency.
The combination of ability to pay and access to better performing primary schools by some leaves the rest at a greater disadvantage. In essence, the very thing that we are trying apparently to avoid in allocating spaces at the secondary level now causes greater segregation at the primary level. So the boy from the village has less opportunity in a more progressive society. What a contradiction!
So the issue is really subjecting the children to an examination. But this becomes laughable! There is no examination at primary but as soon as the same ten/11-year-old enters secondary school, a life of examinations begins and does not end. So there is a magical number at which examinations should begin.
There is no boy from the village, who in retrospect would feel that he had a better chance at being allocated to a secondary school, if he were assessed by a single teacher or institution rather than by way of the Common Entrance Examination.
The use of the word “common” is very instructive. It is powerful because it suggests “without special rank or position”.
The real failure is not the examination but the system that teaches one to focus more on regurgitating rather than on creative thinking.
Given the focus, it means that extra lessons enhance the student’s ability to repeat information. So much so that attending lessons is now a very critical part of the educational system.
Until there is a redefinition of success and the stereotypes that inform what is success, the 11-plus should remain, in the absence of a system of across-the-board, equal access at all levels.
• Clyde Mascoll is an economist and Opposition Barbados Labour Party spokesman on the economy.