Will childhood's waste continue?
Ian on Sunday
By Ian McDonald
April 27, 2003
Common Entrance, that scourge of childhood, is being phased out. In June this year children aged six/seven will sit a Grade Two Assessment (20% weighting for future Secondary School entry grading), in June 2005, children aged eight/nine will sit a Grade Four Assessment (40% weighting) and in June 2007 children aged ten/eleven will sit a Grade Six Assessment (40% weighting). By then the old Common Entrance will be no more. Surely one is entitled to shout on behalf of children and their anxiety-ridden parents too - oh, blessed day! The Common Entrance exam has inflicted more mental agony, more mind-numbing and mechanistic counter-creative learning by rote, more crushing and narrowing of the spirit, more sheer waste of precious human potential, and killed stone dead more carefree childhood days than we can ever begin to compute and condemn. So blessed day indeed that it should end.
I remember childhood as a carefree time. Most afternoons, even in term time, I played cricket, football or tennis or was out skylarking with my friends. Weekends we played games or went butterfly catching and swimming up the Caura river or sea bathing "down the Islands." I was brought up to love reading, so reading of my choice filled many quiet, happy hours. I must have worked conscientiously enough at school because I did well in the end of term exams but I do not have the faintest recollection of school-work being the slightest burden or exams being a looming threat until I was about fourteen or fifteen and began to prepare for what was then called the School Certificate. I never took extra lessons in my life. I am sure my parents would have considered such a thing an inconceivable imposition at any pre-teen age.
Thousands upon thousands of Guyanese children from the age of 8 were put on the dreadful treadmill which is what preparation for the Common Entrance exam most certainly was. Unnecessary information was stuffed into them at much too early an age - and lessons outside of school became a compulsory feature of Guyanese childhood (for those whose parents could afford them). An immense pressure of expectations built up connected to that ridiculous make-or-break exam.
Again and again the words written by the great Russian Alexander Herzen about childhood should have come back to haunt and accuse us:
"You are confused by categories that are not fitted to catch the flow of life. What is this goal for which you are seeking? Is it a programme? An order? Who conceived it? To whom was the order given? Is it something inevitable? Or not? If it is, are we simply puppets? ...You think the purpose of a child is to grow up because it does grow up. But its purpose is to play, to enjoy itself, to be a child. If you merely look to the end of the process, the purpose of all life is death."
Think of these words and curse the Common Entrance as it was so absurdly devised. Curse the damage it did to the young lives of our children, how it deprived them of so much carefree enjoyment which is their right at this stage of their lives, how it stifled their imagination and creativity beneath a turgid mass of bookwork, homework and extra lessons.
There is another consideration. In my early school days I remember a boy called Ralph Romain. He was relaxed and companionable and was addicted to boys' adventure stories. He also hated schoolwork and was a legendary dunce. For years he bumped along at the bottom of the classes, getting further and further behind his more conscientious peers. But the system never allowed him to drop out. At the age of sixteen he suddenly decided that schoolwork made sense; two years later he won an Island Scholarship and was on his way to becoming a scholar of the greatest distinction. I mention him only as an example - there were scores of other "late-starters," as there always are and always will be in every country in every age.
The Common Entrance examination is a curse and an abomination. It deprives our children of so much of what should be a carefree, joyous, unpressured time in the lives they only live once. It stifles their creativity and imagination at just the time when these should be flowering. It forgets entirely that countless children are late-starters. It gives a huge advantage to privileged children over poor children; because of this deadly exam a child of average ability, depending purely on birth-luck, will do better than a brilliant child in our educational system.
The Common Entrance was ridiculously over-competitive and dangerously high-pressured for ten and eleven year olds. Making such a decisive grading of children at that early age is an absurd procedure if only because the assessment of intelligence and other such qualities at that age is bound to be very imprecise. There is no evidence whatsoever that top marks, especially at such an early age, are a passport to success, effectiveness, happiness or real creativity .The idea that closed book, written exams for eleven-year olds are a test of, or preparation for, real life is completely laughable.
There had to be a better way to replace that foolish, torturing system so wasteful of human potential. And now we have it. But will this three-tiered assessment change anything? I have read the Chief Education Officer's letter in Stabroek News of April 23 and praise his effort to explain the technical rationale for changing the system. But I still want it explained in words of at the most two syllables how this new system will do away with extra lessons and mind-destroying cramming, how indeed it will not start the awful process earlier in childhood and intensify and ingrain it? I want it explained how the new system improves on the Common Entrance in giving late-starters a better chance? In other words I want it explained why children and their parents might not begin by blessing the end of Common Entrance only to end by cursing even more loudly the beginning of Phased Assessment.