What it is:
We Commonwealthers often have a different education system to the US. Instead of just going from primary (elementary) education into secondary, we sit an exam comprised of Math, English and an essay. In Barbados, it was formerly known as the 11-plus, it's now called the Barbados Secondary School Entrance Examination (BSSEE). Back in my day- I feel so old saying that- you could only sit the exam if you were going to be 11 by August 31. Now they've changed the rules so you can sit up to 2 years early.
How it works:
The secondary school you get into depends on your exam results. In my time, you put schools on a list and the Ministry of Education would run down your list until they found a school that you had good enough marks to go to. It's a little more complex now. There is partial zoning- so you can only choose from schools 'in your area'. Except you get two freebie choices for Spots 1 and 2.
If you don't get into any of the schools on your list, the government gives you a bursary which will cover the tuition at all but the super-expensive private schools. (This gives rise to an interesting case where going to private school can actually be a negative.)
What it effectively means:
There are several ways that the existence of the 11 plus changes the school landscape from what we read in US YA literature.
1. Great minds think alike.
Many YA MCs are either the top of their class by miles, or really falling behind. This doesn't happen as much for us. All the people I went to school with got 85% or up on an exam as 11-year olds. I've never worked it out, but I think about 90% of my class went on to college. And the only people who didn't graduate - at either 16 or 18 (must remember to explain that as well)- either transferred or passed away.
Any situation in today's YA created by a massive differential in intelligence level is just unlikely in my world.
Also since classes were so homogenous, you didn't really have to worry as much about kids not challenged enough, or kids who were thoroughly lost.
All of the kids I went to school with were top of their class in primary school. I'd never finished a term at less than 3rd in class. So imagine how it feels to suddenly be middle of the pack. I guess it must be like being a C student at Harvard or Cambridge. If you've gotten into those schools, you've probably heard a rumour of this letter grade called 'C', but you've never seen one up close.
If you're motivated by being first in class/competition, chances are you suffer in this system. If I'd stayed in a system where I could have been top of the class, I probably would have done better.
Even more unfortunate is the F student, who would be getting A's anywhere else.
On the flip of this, mid and low-level schools gave students who would never have had the opportunity otherwise, a chance to be at the top.
3. The People in Your Neighbourhood.
Going to school by grade meant we weren't going to school by location. This gave rise to having two sets of friends: a neighbourhood group and the group at school. And I suppose this is one of the things that helps the school social scene not be as much pressure as the ones I read about in today's YA.
Reading the (ridiculous volume of) YA that I do, it's painfully obvious different things are for us in the Caribbean and how sadly underrepresented we are in literature. Maybe I'll help fix that one day.