Thu | Sep 21, 2017

Editorial | The budget, grade four test and university bailouts

Published:Thursday | May 4, 2017 | 5:00 AM

Anyone seeking a frame of reference for the poor outcomes from Jamaica's secondary education system should peruse the data on literacy and numeracy at grade four, published yesterday by the education ministry, especially those relating to state-run schools.

There are 765 of the latter, of which 764 had 33,447 students, mostly in the eight-to-nine-year age range, doing the tests. Of this number, only 57 per cent were deemed to have mastered the critical components of literacy and numeracy. Twenty-seven per cent came relatively close, but didn't make it. The other 16 per cent wasn't in the ballpark.

By comparison, of the 3,780 students from private preparatory schools who sat the tests, 85.3 per cent showed mastery of the components of literacy and numeracy, or 28.3 percentage points better than their counterparts in the government schools. Another 12.14 per cent of the prep school students came close.

Overall, 60 per cent of students, after four years in the formal education system, had foundations upon which to build an ongoing process of learning. That's the sugar-coated perspective.

The more significant, and worrying perspective, is that 40 per cent, after that time, and at that age, hadn't yet mastered the components of literacy and numeracy. Moreover, the results represented a four percentage point decline from 2016, the bulk of which is accounted for by a five-point drop in the performance of students in state-supported schools. There was also a 2.2 percentage fall among students at prep schools.

All this, however, is not new. Jamaica has been battling decades with this crisis of education and the fact that our primary school system churns out students who are not ready to absorb secondary. It is small wonder, in the circumstance, that hardly more than a fifth of Jamaica's high school students, after 11 years of education, pass five CXC subjects, include Math and English, at a single sitting and/or able to matriculate to university studies.

There are many contributors to this conundrum, but the most obvious one is weakness of their foundation; what happens at the early-childhood and primary levels. In too many cases, high school becomes an exercise in remedial services to bring students to where they ought to have been at the end of primary school.

 

COMPLEX PROBLEM

 

The fix for this problem is complex and multidimensional, but includes the issue that Archibald McDonald, the principal of the University of the West (UWI) at Mona, has given a country an opportunity to seriously debate: how should the Jamaican government allocate its education resources. This week the Holness Administration announced that it would bail out more than 300 students that the UWI intended to exclude from their final exams for failure to pay fees.

That will cost near J$50 million, which is separate from a to-up of J$300 million the government intends to provide to three institutions, including the UWI, in September, to help hard-up students. Already, the government subsidises up to 80 per cent of the economic cost of students attending state-supported tertiary institutions.

The bulk of that support goes to UWI and the University of Technology (UTech), which between them, corral 11 per cent of the government's recurrent spending on education, three times the amount allocated to early-childhood system and a third of the budget of the primary schools.

With the bailout of the Mona students, Professor McDonald perceives a moral hazard. He has warned that Jamaica cannot, at this time, afford free university education. In that observation is the implicating question of where does it end? What of the first and second-year and other students with financial problems?

Further, more resources allocated to one sector is likely to mean taking from somewhere else, like early-childhood and primary systems. Clearly, there is need for a full, coherent conversation on this issue.