Ronald Thwaites | Dismantling apartheid
Every person who is thought to have even remote influence with any high school that gets half-decent results has been importuned since the announcement of the GSAT results to arrange a transfer place for someone's child. The statistic that only about 20 per cent of those who sat the grade- 11 CSEC exams got matriculable results tells you why there is such a scramble for 'good' places. And it promises to be the same, whether it is PEP or GSAT.
Some half of our 12-year-old children and their parents will feel that their life chances are colted. Some, and their teachers, will strive mightily to overcome the stigma; others will behave expectedly as the lesser beings they are designated to become. It is systemic injustice.
We do not have to continue this way. There are many things that we can do now, within our means and in our time, to effect change. What follows is not a criticism of the present minister or Ministry of Education or any of the 100 and more non-traditional high schools. It is a list of suggestions for partnership and concerted action by everyone.
First, no child should begin grade-seven studies this September before he or she has attained at least a grade of 60 per cent in language arts and numeracy. Start right after the August holidays and keep going until all, except the specially challenged, can understand and read simple English, handle basic maths, and show that they can behave themselves appropriately. Forget the syllabus until this foundational work has been done.
To achieve this, teachers will have to receive some additional remuneration, and some specialist services will likely be required. Every dollar spent now will avert the cruel waste of money and human effort later on in the high-school system. Institutions with more than 20 per cent low-achieving entrants should receive an additional 50 per cent grant for each such student to afford the continuing attention that will be required to maintain performance and avoid failure and dropouts.
Next, the ministry and schools must revisit the announced assignment of students. Some element of zoning can no longer be postponed.
I attended a graduation recently in a Buff Bay Valley primary school from where students have been assigned to Happy Grove near the St Thomas border and Marymount in far-off St Mary, passing three or four other high schools along their exhausting and expensive journey. In an area where the coffee price has collapsed, all this means is that attendance will probably be three days a week at best and homework will hardly ever be completed.
Given students with basic competencies and without insurmountable obstacles of access, I am convinced that the faculty of most newer schools can deliver vastly improved outcomes.
This, assuming a nutritional programme that really delivers, as well as gradually improving infrastructure.
The longer-term solution to apartheid in Jamaican education requires the upgrading of the primary-school system. This, too, can start now, propelled by the as-yet, little-understood Primary Exit Profile. Careful testing of competencies from grade four, if moderated by someone other than the student's own classroom teacher, ought to ensure that by grade six, the required standard is reached or the necessary remediation applied.
It is the job of principals and education officers to see that all this happens. They should be evaluated accordingly. This is not happening now. Why not? We have become too satisfied with the excellence of the few, mediocrity of others, and the conveyor belt of failure for the many. And we are still being misled by those who infer that prosperity can be separated from superior attainment of education and training.
Recently, the Government announced a programme of intervention and stimulation for the crucial first days of a child's life - from conception until age two - during which time an immense and lifelong determinative degree of metabolic activity takes place in the human brain.
This effort confirms with scientific evidence that human life begins in the womb, which must never be made a killing field. For this vital project to succeed, however, and for any of the reforms of the education system to succeed, the full engagement of parents is essential. The nation is still to accept the truth that having attentive parents and a stable home are supremely important assets for every child.
The bottom line for the ending of educational apartheid is the strengthening of the Jamaican family and the implementing of the measures set out above. It will take personal resolve and political will.
- Ronald Thwaites is member of parliament for Kingston Central and opposition spokesman on education and training. Emailback to firstname.lastname@example.org.