Sat | Oct 21, 2017

A challenge in education

Published:Friday | April 1, 2016 | 12:00 AM
In this 2013 file photograph, cosmetology students at the Aabuthnott Gallimore High School hone their skills. Columnist Peter Espeut queries whether alumni of schools like Aabuthnott Gallimore feature in the plans of Jamaican society.

One of the legacies of colonialism is that inequality is finely woven into the fabric of Jamaican society. Nowhere is this clearer than in education and health care.

Some may say that it is only natural: Those Jamaicans who can afford it are able to access world-class education and health care for themselves and their children, while those who can't ... well, they must take whatever they get.

But must we accept as 'natural' the fact that Jamaica is the fourth poorest country in the Americas, with the second-highest unemployment rate, and the second-most unequal distribution of wealth (after Suriname)? Or must we conclude that Jamaica is a sick society, and that the profound inequality that many consider 'normal' is pathological and planned?

When it comes to education, it is time that we sever the link with our colonial past and enter the modern world. The dual education system we have in Jamaica was developed during colonial times to reproduce and reinforce the class and status system. I would hope that in this 21st Century, we will put this classism behind us.

At the elementary level, private preparatory schools and government primary schools deliver qualitatively different educational content in quite different circumstances (class sizes, class origins of teachers, language of instruction), with radically different outcomes: putting it baldly, some children go to primary school for six years and still cannot read and write.

This inequality (some would say, apartheid), is intensified at the secondary level in the disparity between the quality of outcomes delivered by traditional high schools and the rebaptised former junior/new secondary schools.

There are always well-advertised exceptions, but, generally, the life chances and prosperity of Jamaicans are largely determined by the type of high school they attended.

I have a question for those who plan for Jamaica's future growth and development: Who is it that you intend to transform and grow the Jamaican economy? Do the graduates of Fair Prospect, Maldon, Aabuthnott Gallimore and Papine high schools feature in your plans? Or are you banking solely on graduates from Jamaica College, Munro College, Cornwall College and Kingston College to start the factories and the e-businesses to employ new hundreds of thousands, reduce unemployment and poverty, and stimulate economic growth?

 

PLANNING TO FAIL

 

I think we are poor because we planned for many of our citizens to be poor by providing them with low-quality education, qualifying them only for manual work in cane farms, banana fields and coffee pieces. As I see it, the grand opportunity to break this cycle of poverty was missed just after Independence when the new Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) Government of Alexander Bustamante went to the World Bank for our first education loan.

At the time, Jamaica had 41 high (grammar) schools. To enter any of them, a student had to 'pass' the Common Entrance Examination (CEE). There was no 'pass mark'; the number who passed was determined by the number of available school places (classrooms, desks and chairs) in the 41 high schools.

Instead of using the World Bank loan money to increase the number of places in those 41 high schools, or to build more high schools to increase the number who could pass the CEE, the JLP Government built 80-odd junior secondary schools. To enter those schools, you had to fail the CEE!

Put another way, the JLP government of the day planned for tens of thousands of Jamaican children to fail the CEE by not providing the space for them to pass.

Imagine how different Jamaica's education system would be today if we had built 40-50 more Glenmuirs or Titchfields or Rusea'ses?

I mention this sad episode in our history because I want this present JLP Government to be aware of its legacy in education, and what it has to make up for. The Holness administration must take it as their particular challenge to reduce the inequities in Jamaica's education system which they exacerbated 50 years ago!

Why is the State using taxpayers' money to fund an education system that favours some and disadvantages others? Why is it that those children whose parents can afford to pay for them to receive high-quality secondary education receive it tuition-free from the State, while those children from disadvantaged backgrounds who need special attention to become high achievers can't get it because the Government cannot afford it?

Come now! It is time to put our classist colonial past behind us!

- Peter Espeut is a sociologist and rural-development scientist. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.