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Pressures of the 11-plus

Shantal Munro-Knight

Pressures of the 11-plus

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I am not sure if many of you saw the story in Friday’s WEEKEND NATION of the young boy from Trinidad and Tobago who killed himself just before he had to sit his exams.
This was indeed saddening and reminded me of all the stories I had been hearing of in Barbados about how the 11-plus was affecting students. In one case I heard of a child who vomited all through her exam last year, and in another case a child had diarrhoea at the prospect of just taking a mock exam in preparation for the big day. I know of one case where a child, after hearing poor results on a mock exam, literally had a meltdown and could not function for an entire day.
I have also heard of children who became intensely ill, but no one could find any visible reasons for the symptoms exhibited.  
There were also the stories of the children who had been consistently high or above average performers throughout their school life or at least within the last year of their schooling who failed to perform on the day of the exam. The reason for the non-performance is attributed to fright or children just being overwhelmed by the experience.
It is not only the children who are affected, but the parents as well. As the parent of a child who sat the exam this year, I know all too well how the preparations can consume the entire household. I spoke to many parents that were just as anxious to have the day over.
One parent said she would be happy not to see another mathematics problem for a long time to come. Another said she would be happy just see her child be able to relax again.  
I tip my hat to all the teachers who teach class 4, the time investment and effort is humongous. I am sure that, in many cases, they have many sleepless nights as they try to prepare the children and get them ready, all for that one day. Interestingly, the societal perception that performance on this one day is a major determinant of one’s life’s chances is not waning but rather growing stronger. Despite the fact that we have examples of people who are making outstanding contributions regardless of the secondary school they went to, the idea that passing for certain schools will give you some special advantage in society is something that hangs over the head of our children like a noose. 
It is not all the fault of parents. It is an overall perception in society. Regardless of how much you tell the children just do their best and you will be proud they feel the unspoken pressure to make sure they are part of the elite group which makes it into the “good schools”.
Having gone to Springer Memorial Secondary, I know full well people’s reaction even now when I tell them where I went to school. I remember someone asking me where I went to school and they started to guess and got as far as The St Michael School and then they said to me if I had not even gone there it would not make any sense them guessing any further and walking away.
Could you imagine: A big hard back woman,
running a regional organisation being reduced to an unsuccessful 11-year-old in a conversation about which school I attended eons ago. It is that unspoken class positioning that happens in Barbados that we pretend does not exist.  
I have tried very hard, even while writing this article, to imagine any other single moment in a child’s life which is deemed by society as being so defining that the moment stays with them throughout their life, and I cannot recall any. At secondary school, you can have more than one opportunity to sit CXC exams and even if you fail there, you can try again after school.
At university, there is ongoing assessment. I remember failing my first statistics test so horribly it was embarrassing and still being able to have a final B grade. At work, a good employer does not judge you on one single event; he or she examines overall performance.
With Christ, we have the opportunity to mess up and come again and again for his forgiveness. So why is it so important that at this young age we put our children through that much stress for one single day? It is an anomaly. 
I did not have any such hang-ups about passing for the “good school” to give to my daughter. As I have said to many people, my fear is not so much about which school she will pass for, but what she will encounter when she gets into the secondary school system. I am convinced that there is a fair share of deviance across all schools, including the so-called good schools.
Perhaps if we spend more time concentrating on creating the best school environments across the spectrum, some of the pressure would begin to dissipate. Perhaps if we create schools of excellence for the arts, sports and science, some of the children who “fail to perform” in the academically skewed 11-Plus would find their place in a world which is paying a premium for these skills.
Who would lose if we redesigned the system to provide for that balance between ongoing assessment as well as appropriate competition at an appropriate age? Ah! this might be a question. Who would lose if the status quo was overturned?