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Will Barbados be the first Caribbean nation to abolish the secondary school entrance exam?

Barbadian Prime Minister Mia Mottley gives a speech at the 108th (Centenary) Session of the International Labour Conference in Geneva, Switzerland, on June 19, 2019. Photo © Crozet / Pouteau, used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.

Secondary school entrance examinations in the Caribbean have been around for over a century, a colonial holdover from as early as 1879 in some territories. Though renamed and restructured several times, they have remained as what many experts deem an irrelevant, stress-inducing test that sucks the joy out of learning for eleven-year-olds region-wide.

Now, at least one regional government is poised to actually do something about it. According to Barbados Today, “sweeping changes are on the horizon” for the country's education system — including getting rid of the controversial Common Entrance exam — in an effort to create more diverse and equitable educational opportunities for schoolchildren.

At a public meeting in the capital city of Bridgetown on June 2, 2019, Prime Minister Mia Mottley linked the prevalence of violent crime to an education system that does not value everyone's talents and said that it was time to reject such an approach.

Under the current secondary entrance exam structure, only the top performing students — essentially, those who test well — win access to the best schools. Class also becomes a factor, since parents with good social connections often pull strings to get their children into schools of their choice. Prime Minister Mottley's position is that Barbados must “create an educational system that makes every school a top school”.

The statistics back her up. Results from the 2019 Barbados Secondary School Entrance Examination (BSSEE) point to a need for reform that includes a move away from a curriculum that is heavily slanted towards academics to include more of the arts as well as technical and vocational training.

There have also been calls for more inclusivity when it comes to special needs children, who are often not adequately supported by the public school system.

In fact, it is often private schools that perform best on the exam, which again raises the issue of means and class. Barbadian educator Rhonda Blackman noted that “many parents are of the opinion that the Common Entrance [exam] is the only fair system for the ‘poor man’ child to get into a ‘good school'”, a perception that she challenges, saying, “It is not the school but what children do when they reach the respective schools that matters.” Blackman recommends continuous assessment as opposed to a one-shot exam, zoning, which she says will eradicate the “pecking order” of schools, and a “broad and balanced” curriculum that takes the diversity of students’ skills into account.

If the Mottley administration succeeds in this endeavour, it would be history-making; other governments in other CARICOM nations have promised to abolish the exam before and failed. In fact, the inability (on unwillingness) to abolish the exam — despite its ill effects on children's mental health and self esteem — has spawned spin-off industries in the form of text book publishing and extra lessons. These, in turn, create a domino effect, with children's health being compromised by having to tote heavy backpacks to and from school as well as by having less time to play, which has widely been established as integral to healthy childhood development.

Until the exam is abolished, however, children will continue to suffer in a myriad of ways — including being abused by their parents in an effort to have them pass for a preferred school. The vicious cycle prompted Jamaica-based writer Nazma Muller to lay the blame not at the feet of desperate parents, but at the regional governments full of “old dogs refusing to learn new tricks”:

Why is the Ministry of Education perpetuating this abuse and discrimination against children who cannot attain 99% on the SEA [Secondary Entrance Assessment exam] — because that is what you need to get into a prestige school. […]

Fire bun SEA, Common Entrance and all the discrimination that passes for education in the Caribbean. Every child deserves a good-quality education that prepares them for LIFE, not CXC [Caribbean Examinations Council, a board that administers different exams] or a wuk in de guvament [government job]. Life. […] Research what is happening with education in Finland, Norway and all the countries where the quality of life is top of the tops and people not going mad and beating their children. […]

But why we have a system that making our children feel they stupid if they don't pass for ‘a good school'? Why all the schools […] not good?

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