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Esther Phillips


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The word “stronghold”, according to the New American Oxford Dictionary, is defined as “a place that has been fortified to protect it against attack;
a place where a particular cause or belief is strongly defended”. The term is therefore normally associated with military activity as well as with political or religious affiliation.
In some religious circles, the term “stronghold” is taken very seriously and in that context may often be defined as more of a “stranglehold” than anything else. The seriousness associated with the term lies in the fact that a stronghold is regarded not merely as a physical location but something that resides in the mind or in the spirit. Its roots are so deeply embedded that nothing short of strong spiritual force may dislodge it.  
It should not seem strange that I would include the Common Entrance Examination as one of the strongholds in the Barbadian society. I find it difficult to believe that a more sensible and equitable system such as continuous assessment would apparently meet resistance from our policy-makers in education.
But why should I be surprised? We’re dealing with a stronghold whose roots are like those of the river tamarind, spreading wide and deep. What is more, the tentacles of this stronghold have entwined themselves into the class system and shows its ugliness where one would least think it should.
Let me give you an example. I was not there but was reliably informed that on a Sunday morning following the results of this year’s exam, one of the pastors of a church, which is affiliated with a primary school, made his announcement about the results of the exam.
The pastor gave the specific number of children in the school who had sat the exam and then happily proceeded to tell the congregation how many had passed for the following secondary schools, pretty much in the following order: Harrison College, Queen’s College, Combermere, Foundation and Lodge. Something, however, seemed very wrong with the calculation, numerically.
On checking subsequently, it was discovered that just as suspected, no mention whatsoever had been made of those approximately 15 children who had passed for the so-called newer secondary schools. Those children had been completely excluded from being mentioned. Why? They were clearly not perceived, by either school or church, as having been successful. To all intents and purposes, they had failed.
I wonder if the parents were sitting in the congregation that Sunday and how they felt. Surely they had been paying the same school fees as all the other parents. Did those parents too feel that they had failed? What about the children concerned? How did they process the fact that they had not been mentioned? Were they already internalizing feelings of poor self-worth? And what a place for this to happen!  
We may say what we want, but the discrimination inherent in the present system is still in existence and the messages of that discrimination are affecting individuals way into adulthood.
As it relates to the iniquitous Common Entrance Examination, I question the argument made that everyone must learn to live with the fact of failure. I would ask whether this lesson necessarily has to be packaged and administered to thousands of 11-year-old children every year in the name of education.
And the idea that the “melting pot” effect occurs at tertiary level? Really? In any case, what percentage of the student population of the entire island enters tertiary institutions? And even if there were a levelling off academically at that stage, what about the psychological damage that has already been done at age 11?
What is more, there is still the inclination in our society to categorize the individual based on family connections, place of abode and school(s) attended. That is still a fact.
I commend the efforts of parents, principals and teachers who do their utmost to make their students feel valued wherever they are allocated in order to receive their education.   
I look forward to the day, however, when our present system will be modernized to test the varied other intelligences of children. I continue to hope for the implementation of continuous assessment that is fairer and makes far more sense than the one-off exam that now exists.
And, of course, I keep wondering what it will take to dislodge this stranglehold from Barbados.
• Esther Phillips is an educator, poetand editor of BIM: Arts For The 21st Century. Email [email protected]