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The Common Entrance Exam - Private Schools vs Public Schools

The Common Entrance Examination (CEE) comes under attack every year by a cross section of the community, but while most tend to focus on portraying the exam as a tool that disadvantages students, I am yet to hear anyone address some of the crucial elements that may be the reasons behind the performances of students in the primary school.


As a parent with a great interest in what is happening to our young people, I will argue that the CEE in itself does not fail or disadvantage any student as the system allows any child from any back ground to gain entrance to the very best schools on this island.


My argument might be attacked, at least for referring to ‘the very best schools’, as most would like to believe in the aged fabrication that “all schools are equal”, but on close examination there are several differences in secondary schools on this island.  


This year’s CEE examination created another furore when the top ten list of students was not given but a top 20 list included 16 students from private primary schools compared to 4 students from the public schools. What should also be noted is that approximately 400 children would have taken the exam from private schools while approximately 3,000 cam from public schools.  They say the truth hurts and it probably did hurt some educators who were quick to point to various reasons for the performances of the private schools versus the public schools. 


One of the responses that really caught my attention was that of Mr. Dan Carter a retired educator who penned an article in the Nation Newspaper (July 27), under the title, “11 Plus Comparison Unfair”.  In his attempt to support the failings of the public primary schools, Carter wasted ink, but what disappointed me most was his inappropriate mention of an 11-year-old child’s name while referring to him as “white from St. Gabriel’s School.


I could not be more disappointed. 


The private schools in Barbados focus on the same academic programmes as the public schools, with a few additions to the curriculum.  They insist on children doing extracurricular activities and class sizes vary from school to school just as in the public schools. The major difference however might be in the quality of the teaching staff, the focus on each individual child, the programmes in place to assist each child and the child friendly environment at the private schools.


I noticed that the private schools such as St. Gabriels, who fielded a few students on the top 20 list, have a number of teachers on staff with back grounds in psychology, many are trained overseas and had teaching stints around the world.  There also seem to be an emphasis on the arts and almost every child is involved in extra-curricular activities. These are all things that should exist in every school, but there are missing in public primary schools where the focus seem to be simply on passing an exam, a strategy that is failing them. 


Carter alluded that the private schools gain from having children from intellectually rich families, but I do not understand his point because having an intellectually rich mother or father does not translate to an intellectually rich child nor does it mean an involved parent.


As a matter of fact, many lawyers, doctor and professionals with doctorates, Masters and honours degrees have their children in the public schools and to the best of my knowledge the public schools.  What might be said,  is that these parents choose certain public schools, but not even the results at those certain schools matched up to the performances of the private schools and it has nothing to do with the class size, who the parents are or how well or bad behave the children are.

As an example, let me look at the top student at one such public primary school.  A  brilliant student from an intellectually rich family and who is involved in extra-curricular activities just like any private school child.  The parents have done everything right with the child, but the child suffered a class three year that was plagued with teacher absenteeism, apparent conflicts between the principal and teachers and at the end of class three, the class did not complete the class three syllabus. 


Going into class four, I understand that the teacher had to move at such speed that students were sometimes ‘lost’.  While this child’s parents got hold of the situation and did what they had to do outside of the classroom, the child was able to average 94A on the CEE, but this was not the case for the majority of students from that school.

Can you imagine what the child would have done if not for the issues imposed by the school?  Such man-made disasters in the public schools are not unique but nothing is being done to address them and no one is being held accountable for the failings and under performances of these schools. That is one of the reasons for the failings in schools.


The focus in our public primary schools is wrong.   While the ultimate goal should be supporting each and every student’s aspiration and inspiring them to move to the next step, the goal from as young as five years old seem to be on passing the CEE and this thinking starts the failure of many students.


It is not a secret that there are issues with some parents and there are children coming into the system at four and five who are not mentally, physically or socially ready for school, but they are there for help, for uplifting and to be educated and that is the job of the school.  That is what teachers are getting paid to do and that does not seem to be understood.


Many of these young students have been living lives that do not offer any insight into the value of education, they see hopelessness and failure all based on a realistic assessment of the lives that they are living.  


To address that, every child entering primary school should be evaluated and programmes geared towards the personal development of every child should be in place with the aim to help the young student understand the purpose of being at school and the value of education. Moving children upward when they are not prepared for such a move is setting them up for failure and the under-performance of schools cannot be surprising if this is happening.  That is another reason for the failing of public schools.


The teaching staff in the public primary schools also need to evaluated and continued assessment and training programmes must be in place for all teachers and that training should also give them the ability to spot mental health issues with the students, which in turn would make their jobs easier and more rewarding.  

Our teachers are also not equipped to deal with the gifted child, or the very spirited child who is sometimes seen as trouble, when in fact he/she is strong willed and needs to be understood, while the gifted child needs to be kept motivated and allowed to move at his pace. 

The comments from teachers posting on social media can only make one wonder why they are in the field of teaching.  One teacher wrote that the children who do well in the CEE are born to pass test while those who perform at the bottom have heads that are ‘hard wired’.  Such a teacher has no place in the classroom, but who is watching or checking?


There is also limited willingness by principals and teachers to take risks, to change teaching styles, to try new ideas and to experiment with learning, when this needs to be done to keep pace with changing technology and the speedy advancement of the global village we are living in.

While there is really no harm in the CEE, the strong focus on it, needs to be removed. Students should not be at 'after school lessons' with teachers from the same primary schools but they should be encouraged to engage in extracurricular activities such as music, art and sports which can help to develop them mentally, socially and emotionally.


The involvement of parents needs to be more encouraged by schools.  Schools cannot ask for parental involvement and refuse to include them in decision making or see discussions with them as burdensome.  I am aware of many parents who dread having to ask a question at school and this does not give rise to parental involvement.  A more appreciative attitude towards parents need to be standard in primary schools in Barbados.


Education should not be any body’s political football and the present unions who do not seem to have the interest of the students on their agenda need to be stopped from using education to gain political points.


Education, its success or failures, is not about any system, it is about the children and until the authorities stop playing the blame game and focus on the social injustice we are handing our children, we will continue to fail them.

Most of the private schools seem to have it right.  They get children prepared to take the same CEE with way better success because they have the right plans in place and the right people on staff.

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