Had Leonardo Da Vinci sat the Common Entrance Examination 500 years ago, this is what his answer paper might have looked like – he was seriously dyslexic!

This week, in the small minority of homes of children that won bursaries or scholarships in the Common Entrance Examination there will be jubilation and resignation in the homes of the majority that did not.

In this commentary I want to give hope and assurance to those that the testing methodology failed. To my mind, it was not the children that failed the exam but the exam that failed the children. Furthermore, I maintain that grooming a child from the age of nine for that kind of examination ranks as a form of child abuse.

Sir William Henry Hadow, an educational reformer who in the 1920’s recommended the introduction of primary and secondary schools in the UK, would doubtless agree. His report, progressive for its day, argued that:

The primary school curriculum should be based on the children’s knowledge and experience, not on abstract generalisations or theoretical principles. It should be thought of in terms of activity and experience, rather than of knowledge to be acquired and facts to be stored. A good primary school is not a place of compulsory instruction.

The Caribbean Common Entrance Examination is a colonial hand-me-down from the UK’s 11 Plus. The 11 Plus Examination dates from 1945 when the Tripartite System introduced three types of secondary school, namely: grammar school, secondary technical school and secondary modern school. It was abolished in the 1970’s when all schools went Comprehensive.

As at this point in time Dominica does not have a similar Tripartite System – all children progress to the same level of secondary education – the only function of the Common Entrance Examination is as a financial incentive in the form of bursaries and scholarships and as a first choice of secondary school. It therefore beggars belief why we put children through the stress of the examination at that tender age. Subsequent streaming can be determined from regular class results.

As a confidence builder it serves only a small percentage of pupils. For the majority it serves as life’s first major “put-down”. Research has shown that it takes ten “up-lifts” to counter one “put-down”. It is an early differentiating step between the “have nots” and what a government minister recently termed as “those who are in higher positions in the social space”.

In essence the Common Entrance Examination is an Intelligence Test and as such it has the major failing of all intelligence tests: it cannot measure creativity. Neither can it measure the co-ordination between hand and eye, an essential attribute for all skilled work. A creative answer is marked as nought. Hence, a dyslexic child hasn’t a cat in hell’s chance and up to 15% of Afro-Caribbean children are dyslexic. To that you can add at least 30% of pupils who are creatively rather than academically inclined.

Research indicates that children are born with 98% the creative potential of genius. However, as they go through life, the figure falls dramatically. At the age of eight, the percentage has dropped to 32%. By the time they reach thirteen, peer pressure has brought it down to 10%, and by adulthood, conformity has reduced it to less than 2%. As individuals and as a nation, creativity is our most valuable resource. Creative thinking enhances academic qualifications but it is not necessarily dependent on them.
Incidentally, the syllabuses of Dominica’s two most sought after secondary schools largely omit the Creative Arts.

Five years ago Dominica piloted the Caribbean Primary Exit Assessment as a possible alternative to the Common Entrance Examination. As the some elements of the assessment are spread over a period of years, rather than on the result of a one-off nerve-racking exam, it offers some improvement. Nevertheless, it still misses the point: that being, what’s the point if all children are eligible for the same level of secondary education.

Let me end by offering hope to the majority that did not get a high test score by confessing that sixty-five years ago I failed the 11 Plus, and you can add that I am dyslexic. In those days dyslexia was not understood. We were put down as being dumb; albeit that in the year leading up to the exam I designed and built a model aircraft with a 30 inch wing span that could fly the length of a football field!

The “sink” secondary modern school that I attended was later closed by the government as failing. But it certainly did not fail me, and if I had my life to live over I would beg to be sent back to the same school. A remarkable bunch of teachers restored my confidence and in four years I rose from bottom of the bottom stream to top of the top stream. Those teachers, none of them highly academically qualified, were the first to recognise my potential in the Arts and Engineering Design. I have since won national awards in both fields.

On the other hand, my best friend Brian remained at the bottom of the class and when he left school the only job open to him was sweeping up in a bakery. Years later, on a visit to my home town in England, I looked twice at the smartly dressed man walking towards me: it was Brian, also home on a visit. Over the years he had progressed from sweeper to Master Baker. He then progressed to hotel catering and when we met he was the Head Pastry Chef at one of Australia’s top hotels. As he said: they tried to teach me everything at school but missed the one thing that I’m good at!