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IN THE CANDID CORNER: The private advantage

Matthew Farley

IN THE CANDID CORNER: The private advantage

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Social mobility may be improving . . . but class is still the biggest factor in educational success. – John Grace, The Guardian.
Exactly two weeks ago I drew attention to the contribution of private secondary schools and hoped that the official visits of Senator Harry Husbands represent a sign of hope rather than signal the further demise of the sector. I took the time to call for the 29-year embargo on the level of Government’s contribution to these schools to be lifted and for the playing field to be levelled.
With the celebration of the success of the 2013 Common Entrance Examination results still very much in the atmosphere, the performance of private primary schools has taken centre stage. Let me say up front that I think the celebration of the Top 10 or Top 20 is meaningless unless some attempt to trace their progress over the next five or so years is made.
It would be interesting to know, where are the students who placed in the Top 10 in 2008? How many of the Top 20 in 2005 went on to do well at CXC or CAPE? How many of them got Barbados scholarships or exhibitions? How many went on to the University of the West Indies? Somebody has to ask these questions of our Top 20s and Top 10s. Where are they now?
Let me congratulate all the students who by virtue of taking the transfer examination, with all its flaws, will enter secondary schools this September. Over the years I have asked the question whether the Barbados Secondary Schools’ Entrance Examination (BSSEE) truly reflects the intellectual capacity of our ten- to 12-year-old cohorts.
Does failure or success at this stage represent a good gauge of how one will do in later life? Are the Top 10 performers in this year’s exam the brightest of the 4 000 entrants or is it a case of their being “drilled” for the test? Has the BSSEE now become so predictable that if properly coached, any diligent student should be able to do well on it? I had a primary school friend who was an expert in predicting the items in the grammar component of the English paper. By looking back on the past papers, she was able to coach students to perform well on the test.
The issue of this year’s performance of private schools is worthy of some critical analysis. It is a fact that 60 per cent of the Top 10 students are products of such schools. It would be remiss of me not to commend their success. This year’s performance is not a fluke.
My statistics indicate that for the past ten or so years there was clear evidence that this trend was emerging.
In 2002, five private primary schools obtained higher averages in English and maths than the top ten public primary schools.
Belleville Grammar School, the People’s Cathedral, St Angela’s and St Gabriel’s and St Winifred’s had higher averages than any of the top ten public primary schools. This was so for both the boys and the girls in these schools.
The Rock Christian [School], which should take a bow for producing the top boy this year, has not had a consistently high performance over the years under consideration. In 2002 and 2004, for example, its girls outperformed the boys, who struggled to get in the Top 10 in the same years.
The figures also suggest that the girls in these private schools consistently outperformed their male counterparts over the past ten years.
So without detracting from the superior performance of the private schools in this year’s exam, I wish to advance the view that not all private schools are doing well. Indeed, many are struggling. The conclusion that social class is an important factor in the performance of these schools is difficult to challenge. Class size and pupil-teacher ratio are critical advantages that are playing out in this scenario.
While information on teacher competence is not readily available, it is known that many of these schools struggle to attract and retain trained and qualified teachers and have relied on retirees.
Conversely, the Ministry of Education, Science, Technology and Innovation must explain to taxpayers why, with the $1/2 billion invested in public education, schools that are under-resourced are performing better?
How is it that with well trained and qualified teachers in public primary schools there is so much failure, chaos and disorder? Children are out of control, teachers and principals are literally pulling out their hair.
These are some of the questions to which this year’s BSSEE performance must trigger answers. Is there indeed a private advantage or are public primary schools disadvantaging themselves?
• Matthew Farley is a secondary school principal, chairman of the National Forum on Education, and a social commentator.