Thu | Oct 18, 2018

Jaevion Nelson | Is first-in-family scholarship the answer?

Published:Saturday | September 22, 2018 | 12:00 AM

I know it's cute to talk about tertiary education, but we actually need to focus more on early-childhood, primary and secondary education. This is particularly critical if we intend to move people from 'poverty to prosperity' and build a 'new economy' in 'a Jamaica that works for all'.

There is absolutely no way around it. Don't allow anyone to tell you otherwise.

It's rather odd that the alarmingly large percentage of students who leave secondary school without certification has not prodded more discussion about how we are failing as a society. I've surmised that tertiary education is seemingly (and oddly so) a strategy to demonstrate commitment to the educational advancement of our people and secure votes, though more educated Jamaicans are less likely to vote.

Opposition Leader Peter Phillips, at the 80th anniversary conference of the People's National Party (PNP), in announcing his party's return to democratic socialism, outlined proposals that a government led by him would pursue to transform the education system that he strangely likened to apartheid.

 

Full scholarship

 

Among the proposals was the possible establishment of the "first-in -family scholarship programme", which would "provide full scholarships (tuition and expenses) for the first child of every Jamaican family to enrol in a tertiary institution".

I quite like the idea. If I was from such a family, it would certainly give me something to look forward to. Phillips is absolutely right. Society would benefit tremendously if every family has at least one child who matriculates to college or university and can be supported to attain certification at this level.

I must, however, contain my enthusiasm because such a proposal has to be interrogated, and I am hoping the media and civil society will demand more information on how the PNP will make this happen.

The questions ought not to be limited to how this will be funded, though. We need to hear about pre-primary, primary and secondary education. We need a clear road map to see how each child will move through the system and be afforded the best education so that they can enrol in college or university.

If the status quo remains undisturbed, Phillips and the PNP will not have many "first in family" to send to university. Earlier this year, this paper reported that only 19 per cent of Jamaicans aged 18-24 years have access to tertiary education (see 'Very high percentage of Jamaicans have no access to tertiary education, January 8, 2018).

 

Genuine interest

 

It is, therefore, quite evident that if we are genuinely interested in fairness and ensuring that every Jamaican has an equal opportunity to live their fullest potential and achieve their dreams, then we have to reconsider all this talk about investment in tertiary education. I'm not saying that things can't be done simultaneously, but it's clear that those earlier years have to be a priority.

We need more money for education at the pre-primary, primary and secondary levels to truly empower Jamaicans to achieve their fullest potential (Vision 2030 Goal 1) and ensure that the Jamaican economy is prosperous (Vision 2030 Goal 3).

In fairness to Phillips, he did speak about them at the conference as it relates to providing every student with one nutritious meal daily, resourcing the Social Development Commission (SDC) so "each community [can] take responsibility for their basic schools", encouraging and incentivising the private sector to support basic and primary schools.

He also spoke of providing an "optimal learning environment" so that students at one of "the 118 schools classified as non-traditional high schools, [where] only 14 per cent of each cohort pass five or more subjects", will perform as well as, or better than, those in one of the 45 traditional high schools where nearly 80 obtain certification.

Unfortunately, these were not concrete enough. I consulted 'A New Covenant with the People of Jamaica', which was published by the PNP, and noticed that there is still a dearth of concrete proposals that would suggest that they will indeed disrupt the status quo in our education system so every child learns and can matriculate to college or university.

These recommendations do not, I believe, address the gamut of issues impacting student performance in those 118 secondary schools. I want to believe the commission on education that was launched by Phillips ventilated about the plethora of challenges and recommendations. Hopefully, they will find ways to apprise the public of the recommendations and plans (and not wait until the election to do so as we do not have the luxury of time).

The future of our country is at stake. We have to divorce the tendency to pay lip service to education to develop our best assets (i.e., the people) and radically transform the country. Political leaders have to cease pandering to voters - even when dem seh pickney cyan vote - and give every student an equal opportunity.

We, therefore, have to focus a great deal on earlier years of education so all families can truly benefit from a scholarship programme for the first child in every family to matriculate to college or university.

- Jaevion Nelson is a human-rights, social and economic justice advocate. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and jaevion@gmail.com or tweet @jaevionn.