Streaming and the SSEE
February 4, 2001
Not long ago President Jagdeo indicated the administration's intention of abolishing the Common Entrance exam, or, more properly, the Secondary Schools Entrance Examination (SSEE). This is not news, of course, since that has been declared policy since the Government's first term in office. It will not happen immediately, because there are still not enough secondary school places available, but eventually the intention is to do away with streaming both between schools and within schools - at least for the first three years. Currently the examination determines not just who goes to secondary school, but precisely which secondary school they will attend. The most sought after places are in the senior secondary schools, i.e. those which have a sixth-form department.
There has been virtually no debate in the country about this move, possibly because on the face of it, it has appeal for many parents. Everyone wants their child to go to a secondary school, rather than a primary top, and most want to escape the financial burden of extra lessons and the stress which some of the bottom-house SSEE sweatshops place on their offspring. But then there has been virtually no national debate either about the Secondary Schools Reform Project (SSRP), of which the abolition of streaming for forms one to three constitutes a part.
There will be absolutely no dispute about converting all the primary tops and community high schools into secondary schools; every child should have a true secondary education in this country. However, it does not automatically follow from this that the Common Entrance should be eliminated altogether. And as for the stress on children which the current test imposes, it will simply be shifted to an earlier stage in the primary process (not a healthy thing) and to a later one in the secondary school, where a national third form exam will be introduced. The latter will presumably effectively stream pupils when embarking on the CXC courses, at least within the school which they attend. Plenty scope there for extra lessons.
The eventual aim of the SSRP is to have every student go to secondary school in his or her catchment area; but everyone knows that that is not going to happen. The capital has now spread its tentacles along the East Coast, East Bank, West Coast and West Bank, and many parents commute considerable distances to work. Just as they do at present, they will want their children to attend schools in Georgetown near their workplaces, rather then leave them as latchkey kids after school, with little or no supervision.
Pressure will therefore be exerted on officials by the parents who are able to do so, to allow pupils to attend schools outside their immediate area of domicile.
In addition, the Ministry of Education is deluding itself if it believes that by making entry to Queen's College and the other senior secondary schools dependent on residence, parents are going to take them seriously. They will still pull strings and whatever else is necessary to see that the child gets into QC - more particularly if there are no Common Entrance cut-off marks impeding them.
In the urban areas and some coastal settlements, at least, where class sizes are fairly substantial, the strain of teaching mixed ability classes will be great. It is not fair to either the very gifted pupils, or the very slow learners (not to mention the teachers), both of whom have special needs and require distinctive arrangements. In some coastal villages, and in the hinterland, on the other hand, where classes are small, and the ethos of the classroom and general social conditions are different, then unstreamed classes make sense. One is in any case not preaching rigidity with streaming; one would want a system to be flexible, because children mature at different rates, and it always should be possible to shift pupils from one class to another, if not from one school to another.
At the bottom of all this revolution (experience elsewhere has taught that education systems generally are better reformed piecemeal over a longer time-frame, than overhauled in one fell swoop), is an assumption that the SSEE and the supposed verdict on ability which it represents, is the source of many of the system's problems. It is not. The main problem relates to the paucity of experienced and qualified educators. The current plans to train large numbers of teachers who themselves have had a deficient grounding at the earlier stages in the education process is not an answer. And even if it were, the administration still has not addressed the question of how to anchor the teachers to the schools when salaries are not competitive with those in the Caribbean.
Perhaps we can consider abolishing streaming and the Common Entrance when every schoolchild has access to a computer, because that situation will cater for different rates of learning. But the President's optimism notwithstanding, that is not going to happen immediately; the infrastructure simply is not there to support it, and neither, for that matter, are the teachers.
In the meantime, there is no reason why the Ministry should not reform the SSEE to reduce the amount of rote learning, and make it a more relevant exam. It could start by abolishing the Social Studies paper, which in any case is based on a syllabus containing inaccuracies. Leaving other fields aside, how could it be otherwise when our political framework is in such a state of flux? Then perhaps, the Science paper could be simplified. And then, maybe, the English paper could start moving away from an exclusively multiple choice format, and require the examinees at least to write a few little paragraphs on their own. Perhaps it should require evidence of some reading too. Whatever the case, when bent on reforming, let us start with the biggest problems in the education system.
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