GSAT, Influence & Tragedy

So today is the Grade Six Achievement Test or GSAT for short. It is Jamaica’s national high school entrance test which replaced the long-standing UK’s Common Entrance Examination in 1999.

The exam, perhaps the most important at this stage, is administered every March and the results published in June. As with any final exams the stress, anxiety and controversy level run high. Some children can cope with the extreme drilling and prep work that usually accompanies the exam. Others buckle under the pressure brought to bear by the well intentioned.

From as early as grades 3-4 children are prepped, sometimes even earlier. The Government endorsed GoGsat Program starts children off as early as grade 1 and let’s just say the expectations are extraordinarily high which have led to situations where children are pushed too far (real or imagined) at times with tragic consequences.

True,  parents everywhere want their child(ren) to do well, that is expected. In Jamaica however the expectations are dialled up to the 100th degree.

The Jamaican experience and its emphasis on education (book work as we call it) and these entrance exams especially is a lesson in academic hyperbole. Just about every Jamaican parent harbors the dream of their children gaining entrance into what we call (rather aptly) ‘Traditional’ High Schools.

These institutions are the crème de la crème and spaces there are coveted. Unsurprisingly, they attract the best and brightest. How they remain at the top though is worth looking into. Firstly, they are long established institutions usually founded/funded whether wholly or partially by some religious groups or order.

For instance, the Jesuit Order has founded several now prestigious Schools such as the all boys Saint Georges College in 1850, the co-educational Campion College in 1960 which has perhaps the most enviable and hotly contested spots in any high school and Saint Catherine High School in 1948 another formidable institution.

Secondly, they are well funded, and it’s almost a given that they would be because of the calibre of students who usually are attendees and the depth of their parent’s pockets. It’s a concentric circle really … Well-heeled parents (or those willing to make extraordinary sacrifices) can afford the very best (often private) education starting where it matters the most, Early Childhood.

Their children are almost always guaranteed spots at top preparatory (read private) schools such as the Saint Peters and Pauls (another Catholic institution) which consistently performs well in GSAT. Inevitably these children will move on to secured spots at a Campion or an Immaculate Conception (you guessed it … Catholic).

Of course, what all these schools have in common is that they attract the Nations best teachers, given their extensive and grandiose facilities (some very historically significant) they have wide opened well-ventilated classrooms and with implied exclusivity a healthy student-teacher ratio.

The best thing about belonging to the well-heeled club is the perks, the most important of which is INFLUENCE. These institutions have mastered how to harness the power of the who is who and the who knows who to secure the prestige and the funding. If lil Jessicas’ daddy is the ambassador of so and so or lil Peters’ mommy is the Minister of so and so then things (such as funds) tend to get unstuck from the bureaucratic pipeline real quick.

And finally these schools have very active and very seasoned fundraising machines they call Alma Maters. The cliquishness of the elite and their tendency to only associate with each other in those tight-knit high society circles is evident in these ‘old boys’ foundations who exploit and excise (permittedly) the byproducts of this lucrative system.

All in all the degrees of separation between a barely functioning, underperforming, overcrowded school is how much zeros and commas they can raise (or not), tragic isn’t it?

I have written about this before having personally witnessed the anguish of a child who despite her best efforts and damn good grades did not pass for her 1st or 2nd picks, Wolmer’s Girls and Campion respectively.

Hell, I know first hand what that anguish is like having done Common Entrance at the time and having to wait on the results. Even though I did pass for my 1st choice, Holy Childhood High (yes Catholic again) I know children who didn’t and took their precious young lives for it.

In the end it is important to understand that our children are resilient and with our love and support will flourish whereveer they are planted. Let us not project our personal expectations unto our children, but instead encourage them along their own path.


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