‘In TT ... we have retained the elitist factor in what is now the SEA and also the idea that 11, or a little over, is the ideal time to transition a young boy or girl into what the future holds’
DR JEAN ANTOINE-DUNNE
EVERY YEAR at this time some of us ponder on the ridiculous nature of the Secondary Entrance Assessment (SEA), or what used to be called the Common Entrance Exam. In TT the SEA replaced the Common Entrance (so called because a common set of exam papers are used) in 2001. The names have been changed, apparently to protect the innocent, who in this case happen to be the students sitting this exam.
Many, if not most, students who take this exam will have attended after-school private lessons to ensure they are in the running to gain entry into one of the nation’s prestige schools. In the months leading up to the exam, the majority of students would also have perused and studied practice tests and past papers from previous years – a big spin-off for a number of private organisations. Even the newspapers would have got their share of the booty and upped their sales by offering free tests and advice. It is a big and lucrative business.
We know that this now archaic system was based on the model introduced in the UK in 1944 through the Butler Education Act. This act came about because of wartime agitation. The reforms were part of a campaign to ensure free education for all during a time of intense frustration and to give ordinary people the right to education. Hitherto, most children left school at 14.
The “11-plus” was based on a tripartite system of education with separate strands for academic, technical and functional education. It was believed that a test could ascertain to which of these strands or careers a child was best suited.
The 11-plus exams were a way of accessing free education, or any education for that matter, for those like Irish Catholics in Northern Ireland who had been disfranchised. Several great poets and writers such as Seamus Heaney came through and from this system. But it has been long abandoned as a placement method for general education. The Common Entrance exams taken at 11 or 13-plus are now used almost exclusively in the UK for admission into private schools, or “public schools,” by which is meant schools to which anyone can apply, once they have the means.
Since at the time that the 11-plus was introduced there were few technical schools or institutions, there was fierce competition for the limited places in grammar schools in the UK. It became increasingly apparent over the years that the results of these exams had much to do with the environment of the child and were not necessarily the best way of ascertaining ability.
There was also the added factor in the early days that there were more schools that were exclusively for boys than there were schools for girls, so fewer girls succeeded. The controversial grammar schools, which still use the 11-plus, began to be phased out in Britain in 1965 since they were seen to be inducing class division.
The system of a common entrance exam has now evolved in the UK to a cherry-picking exercise used only by private secondary schools who use this method to give access to those they perceive as the brightest. Parents expect education to give their children the means to climb the social ladder. These exams are not necessarily taken at age 11.
In TT, however, we have retained the elitist factor in what is now the SEA and also the idea that 11, or a little over, is the ideal time to transition a young boy or girl into what the future holds.
Many of us forget the origins of many of the “elite” schools that are now so much sought after. Some, like the St Joseph’s Convents, were introduced as schools for the education of the daughters of the French creoles, others as preparation for entry into European society. The raison d’etre of QRC, the first public secondary school set up in 1859, was, according to one source, “unashamedly to turn young Trinidadians into young English gentlemen.”
Yes, denominational schools and schools like QRC have done a great job with the children of the nation in their care, though many stories abound about inequities based on class and colour. But what about those children of the nation who do not qualify for “good” schools, and who end up in schools which feed their already low morale?
I do not know what will be the response to the call for an increase in stipend to private schools. The fact is that private schools facilitate many who did not get entry into their school of choice.
What I do know is that something needs to be done to remove the stigma of failure from the approximately 2,500 students out of 19,139 who scored below 30 per cent and the other unnamed number who did not get into a school of their choice and who now also perhaps deem themselves to be failures.