The eleven plus mythology

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It appears that the Barbados Labour Party (BLP) Government is about to make some of the most profound alterations to the structure of Barbadian schooling since the Mitchinson Commission of 1870. It was that commission that established the hierarchical structure of schooling that we are apparently now seeking to undo. That Commission set up First grade and Second Grade schools. It was unfortunate, but not surprising therefore, that when the first newer secondary modern, later comprehensive schools, were built after 1950 that they were seen in the public eye as a kind of third grade school. This was unfortunate, but it was part of the historical culture we inherited in a society that was highly graded on the basis of race and complexion (a derivative of race) and socio-economic class distinctions.

Nearly all national education systems have some measure of gradation. For a long time in Germany, there was a three-tier structure of secondary schooling; only the Grundschule or elementary school had all pupils of all abilities grouped together. At the secondary level, the ‘Hauptschule’ was geared to students going on to apprenticeships, the more vocational pursuits; then there is the ‘Realschule’ geared to graduate students going into middling white-collar type jobs and at the top, there is the ‘Gymnasium’ awarding the ‘Abitur’ for those going on to university and to the higher positions in business and government.

In the post-World War II period there was what became known as ‘the liberal hope of education’. It was a legitimate search for greater equality of opportunity in school and in society. Some, more to the ideological left, hoped for equality of result or outcome even though they were not willing to overthrow the capitalist economic order that is the foundation of socio-economic stratification. The Eleven Plus and Barrow’s abolition of the fee-paying structure was a laudable expression of that ‘liberal hope.’

The Germans, like the British, modified their three-tier system and introduced the comprehensive school, the ‘Gesamtschule.’ It was resisted by a broad cross section of German society who rallied under the banner Save the Gymnasium. According to the Economist Magazine of February 11th 2006, today, only 700 of the over 19, 000 secondary schools in Germany are comprehensives. In Germany, the Gymnasium has survived.

There is no parity of esteem in most school systems that are based on the democratic model of government (free choice) and the capitalist mode of economic production, (free market). In Canada, you can attend Upper Canada College where Prince Andrew was a student, or you can go to York Mills Collegiate for the substantively middle class or you could find yourself at a school in the Jane-Finch immigrant corridor of Toronto.

Although no school is perfect, some schools are manifestly better than others in terms of their ethos. That ‘ethos’ is the behavioural and scholastic cultures they inhabit, uphold and defend, and which students internalise. In a conversation with Professor Gary Hornsby, an erudite and scholarly defender of Eleven Plus abolition, I observed that in the drive to ‘comprehensivise’, the British never touched their Public (Private) Schools like Eton, Harrow, Rugby and Winchester. He noted that he was only talking about the publicly funded institutions; one way of keeping the British aristocracy aloof and intact.

But beyond that, there are still many grammar schools in Britain where an entrance exam is taken at Eleven plus. An article in the Telegraph noted that in spite of all the 1960s talk about social equality from what Janet Daley calls ‘the comprehensive lobby,’ Britain today is as class differentiated a society as it ever was. Contrary to all the talk about abolishing the Eleven Plus, selectivity has never been completely removed from the British education system.

The problem in Barbados is that the system here is more hierarchical than most. In a small society, the hierarchy is visible and known to all. Ask any parent the pecking order and you will find a surprising uniformity of pecking.      

I am not sure how much Prime Minister Mia Mottley and Education Minister Santia Bradshaw fully understand the complexity of the ostensibly revolutionary venture on which they appear to be embarking. It seems to me that we may run the risk of serious miscalculation if we rush into changes we have not thoroughly examined.

I say ‘appear’ because, beyond a few hints, we still do not know exactly what is proposed. There is talk of a Middle school and of total zoning, ‘the whole hog.’ This seems to obviate parental choice and, for lack of a better word, to ‘comprehensivise’ all secondary schools. Will there be separate Middle schools or will such schools be merely the junior sections of the present secondary institutions, equivalent to what is now called ‘the lower school,’ forms 1 to 3? Will there be no exam at eleven or will secondary placement be on an ‘eneey-meeny-mineey-mo basis’? Six boys failed to score in the recent Common Entrance Maths paper. Will they be placed in the same class as the unprecedented number of children who got 100 per cent? In large measure, formal education is about individuals and their unique capabilities and inclinations. For its effective functioning, society requires a wide range of skills, academic, technical and vocational.

Again, there is the perennial talk of curriculum change but we are not told what is proposed. The kind of structural alterations proposed will require substantive curricular change to meet the needs of varying abilities. Then there is the school bus system. Will a child from Locust Hall Heights going to St. George Secondary have to walk to school or take one bus to town then take another to Constant? In Canada, designated school buses travel through neighbourhoods picking up children outside of or near their homes.

My greatest fear is that the proposed abolition of the Eleven Plus is mere political window-dressing, pandering in ostensible defence of the black, less academically able, working-class child whose schooling the political classes of both parties B and D have always neglected, prioritizing academic education for the ostensibly brighter and more well to do, over technical and vocational schooling for the less academically proficient (read bookish) and less materially able. The Eleven Plus itself may not be the problem.

Ralph Jemmott is a respected retired educator.       

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