Every year after SEA results are released we go through the recurring cycle of debating the impact of the examination on children. Twenty-one years since the SEA replaced the Common Entrance Examination, we continue to have the same discussions without paying equal attention to what I consider the root of the problem: the 1960 Concordat agreement.
For me, the problem is personal. Like many children writing SEA at the time, I wanted to pass for a so-called prestige school. “Unfortunately”, I was unsuccessful. I did pass for a consistently high-performing school – Couva East Secondary (formerly Couva Government Secondary) – but it was always considered a step down from, say, a Presentation College, my first choice.
I put “unfortunately” in scare quotes deliberately because post-SEA results, I remember neighbours saying that ‘Couva Government’ or ‘Mod-Sec’ was “still a good school”. From an early age I internalised the sentiment that passing for this school was some kind of compensation, that I was in some way “bright, but not quite”.
The mental toll that the pursuit of success takes on a child cannot be underestimated. From the age of 11 we signal to children that the SEA is a defining moment. To not pass for a prestige school is akin to a death sentence. The emotional price that has to be paid follows children, as it has followed me.
I attribute what I’ve done and what I still have left to do partly down to my experience of being “bright, but not quite”. I became an overachiever, feeling the constant need to prove myself not to anyone else but to myself. So, it wasn’t enough that I graduated with first class honours as an undergrad. I remember arguing with one of my lecturers that the A- she gave me for a coursework essay on Shakespeare could easily be bumped up to an A.
The resemblance between my lecturer assuring me that the A- was still a good grade and my neighbour congratulating me by saying Couva Sec was still a good school was striking. Following my BA I decided to do a Master’s. And when I graduated with distinction I had to do a PhD – currently in progress. I say all of this not to “big up” myself – anyone familiar with the job market will know that degree holders in English Literature are hardly in demand.
I say this for the parents who subliminally tell their children that to not pass for a prestige school is a failure. I say this for the unsuspecting 11-year-olds who feel pressured to pass for a prestige school. And I say this for the ministry officials who have the power to enact reform but continue to do little, or nothing at all. The psychological pressure of needing to pass for a prestige school manifests itself later in life and in different ways for different people.
It’s time our officials address the disparity and inequity in education caused by the 1960 Concordat. The Concordat was a signed agreement between the Government of Trinidad and Tobago and religious bodies which gave religious bodies the right to determine their own curricula in denominational schools.
They were also given the right to select 20 per cent of new pupils, regardless of their performance on the secondary school entrance exams. In the year 2022 that we continue to abide by a pre-independence agreement is reason alone for us to revise the Concordat.
Another reason is that the Concordat guarantees the mixing of religion with privilege to give children of middle- and upper-class families an advantage in being placed in prestige schools.
The Concordat allows denominational schools to hand-pick pupils, usually based on religion and socio-economic status of parents who are affiliated with that school ahead of pupils who may have nonetheless outperformed those in the “20 per cent”. If we continue to neglect the impact of the Concordat agreement we will perpetuate the cycle of inequity in education.
In addition to criticising the SEA exam that places unnecessary stress on impressionable 11-year-olds, we also need to examine the 1960 Concordat which gives religious bodies the power to hand-pick pupils regardless of their performance at the exam. Both the exam and the Concordat need to be reformed to ensure that we help, not hurt our future leaders.