COMMENTARY: Life beyond the Common Entrance

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!


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  1. Island767
    May 10, 2020

    Finally! Thank you for writing this article!!

  2. watchdog
    June 29, 2017

    Very well said and expresses the sentiments of a vast majority of folks. We need to move away from the common Entrance mentality and get into teaching and assessing students on classwork and home based projects. The exam puts too much pressure on the kids and only a small fraction may do well. That does not mean the rest are not intelligent!!

  3. Therapist
    June 29, 2017

    I agreed with this comment. There is hope for children who didn’t get the island scholarship or didn’t pass the exam. Don’t let this exam define who u r. I didn’t pass common entrance, passed school leaving, I think that’s what they called it in the 80’s. I completed high school in Dominica, and I am now a successful psychotherapist in the America.

  4. lightbulb
    June 28, 2017

    Dominica did have something close to Tripartite, when JSP existed.
    The program should be reintroduced and integrated with CXC exams that actually measure the candidates ability for an occupation vs continued studies.

  5. Shaka Zulu
    June 28, 2017

    Great perspective. I agree.

  6. Africo
    June 28, 2017

    I hope that this is read by everyone in the ministry of education and that they ask themselves some questions.

    This exam may benifit some high flyers but the majority of our young people, and the future of our country, is ill served by this one track academic stream of education when what we need as a nation are skills and inovative creative thinking.

  7. Waste of Time Diaspora Agrees with Burnett
    June 28, 2017

    Burnett is bang on!

    See here and there for the sort of practical hands-on addition to the Common Entrance Exam which should be given.

    It is a shame that Dominican children are not tested on their knowledge of our island’s botany by being immersed in regular tours of our Botanic Gardens – here

    Nor are they exposed to agriculture, local history or knowledge of art of informatics.

    • Africo
      June 29, 2017

      And because they have not been exposed to these things in high school, when they want to get into the tourism tour guide and taxi business (now Dominica’s highest foreign exchange earner after passports) they have to do special courses to know about their country because they were not taught it before.

      If they do not do the course they cannot be registered to be involved in the tourism industry. They go through the whole of high school without being taught about their country!

  8. Burnett The Wise
    June 28, 2017

    Dear Sir,

    I wish to commend you for a wise article. The Common Entrance Exam needs to have board on which you and maybe eight or nine men and women sit to craft new exam protocols. We are still into the rote learning and our young are not even taught principles of art or music to explore their creative side in the so called Common Entrance. As we shall have to depend on all our brain power we should also invite one or two scientists and artists of Dominican extraction who reside in the “waste of time Diaspora” to sit on that board. That way we can prepare our children for the 21st Century and not have their minds be muddle and muzzled by decrepit test which ill serves the need to foster creative thought, and appeal to the genius in so many who may have learning disabilities as you rightly point out.

    A supporter of the Dominica Academy of Arts and Sciences in the Waste of Time Diaspora – Waste your time with our heritage in arts and sciences here at http://www.dominicagardens

  9. DA Native in Texas
    June 28, 2017

    I do not know who you are, I do not need to know either. But since I read the news on DNO on a regular basis, I can assure you that this is one of the best articles I’ve read in a while. I can remember going to do that exam when I was 10 years old, I didn’t get the scholarship. However, I was informed that I could enter SMA on “bursaries”, but could not because my mom, God bless her in her grave could not afford to send me. And the man who donated the SPERM never replied. Up to this day I have not seen him from 1955. I know he’s still alive in England. But I didn’t let that stop me. I migrated to the USA and thank the Almighty I am who I am because of God. In closing this form of education needs to go. Yes there can still be pvt schools but every child in Dominica should have the privilege of attending high school without their parents having to worry about paying for them to attend high school. And everyone is not designed to be intellectual. We can be tradesmen as well to…

  10. Debs
    June 28, 2017

    I love this article. I agree with everything this person stated. I can attest to that. So many children especially in the country areas never had a chance. fortunately for some they had the opportunity to migrate to other countries where they were afforded the chance to a secondary education and a higher education. a great number of us if not most, took advantage of the opportunities and now we have so many Doctors, Nurses, engineers and all other professions from native Dominica in the U.S, England and all other parts of the world. We are a smart nation, we just need an opportunity. Some might not be good in theoretically, others practically. I don’t believe that anyone God has created is dumb. Some kids might need a little extra tutoring but because their parents cannot afford it they are left behind. So sad, so unfair

  11. Fran
    June 28, 2017

    Agree. I was always in the top 3 of my class in Primary school, and although having taken the common entrance 3 times started at the age of 10, I never passed. I do remember being nervous, but was not the type to have problem/fear of testing. After coming in second at a private secondary school, I eventually transfer to one of the other high schools in Roseau before moving to the U.S. I am now a college graduate with a bachelor’s degree. I chose not to go forward with a master’s degree however, I have continued my education through various certifications in things that actually interest me.

  12. Citizen
    June 28, 2017

    Sit whoever you are you deserve an award for that article. It isbtime we abolish those examinations. Primary school just drill kids to sit exam and no true life learning. Byt he time many arrive Secondary School they are burnt out and have no joy for learning. Assessment in my opinion should be continuous and our curriculum does not cater to the needs and interest of our chikdren. We say we are indecent and progressive but our school system still has its roots in slavery.

  13. marie-claire R Skerrit
    June 28, 2017

    Good read

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