Sun | Oct 25, 2020

Ronald Thwaites | Language is the problem

Published:Sunday | October 7, 2018 | 12:00 AM

The country is just not ready for the Primary Exit Profile (PEP). There are serious problems of language and culture that have to be confronted first. The direction of PEP towards analysis and critical thinking is correct. The implementation of the new order of learning and assessment continues to be dangerously clumsy.

Up to last Sunday, a government spokesman was asserting in the media the readiness of all concerned for the December performance test. Three days later, the same ministry was climbing down about "listening to stakeholders" as a face-saving way of admitting the unpreparedness that everybody else knew, and postponing implementation for three months. Confusion!

This is so because the deficiencies emerging from the PEP mock exam and also at the Caribbean examination levels cannot be cured in a few months. They are systemic, and changing them will require the shift of entrenched mental attitudes and styles of instruction that the Government acknowledges but has so far done very little to implement.

There is even official concession that the "students' levels of comprehension and application ... are generally weak". Why? And what are we being led to do about this state of affairs in-between now and next March?


Problems deep


The problems are deeper than first perceived. First, there was the hurried implementation of an entire new curriculum and the failure to make sure that all teachers even had copies, let alone the incentive to acculturate themselves to new pedagogy and the skills to facilitate assessment.

What sense does it make to rush a crucial test based on a still unfamiliar and largely untaught curriculum?

But beyond that, there is the issue of prevailing levels of student illiteracy in standard English. Many grade-six students who took the mock exam have very low reading levels and so could not handle questions of meaning and interpretation. Language, then, is the real problem.

Jamaican Creole is the first idiom of the majority. They know words in English often sufficient to allow for checking correct boxes in a GSAT multiple-choice format but inadequate for the 'fish bowl'-type questions of PEP.

Peter Phillips uses an apt analogy when he speaks of apartheid in education. In South Africa, it was the clash between Afrikaans and the Bantu language education that exploded.

In Jamaica, the fissure between the command of standard English required for PEP and the familiarity of most students only in Jamaican Creole creates the huge difference in outcomes and explains much of what we are bemoaning in the exam results.

Rewriting some items and commissioning a helpful website is not enough to solve this problem. The seismic shift in what and how, and in what language we teach and learn , can no longer be postponed and will require much more time for reassessment. The effort to introduce PEP has brought one of Jamaica's fundamental dichotomies to the fore.

It is just as well. Time now for broad discourse on how to educate in an explicitly bilingual context and to adapt a system that, frankly, recognises both the dominant cultural forms of the majority as well as the imperative to master the world language, English - its literature and science which are essential both to individual and societal advancement.

The alternative we should all dread will be the tendency to dumb down the examination, fudge the marking and make it seem that everyone has done well, and declare a political triumph. Do that and reap the whirlwind of failure tomorrow and in the future.

- Ronald Thwaites is member of parliament for Kingston Central and opposition spokesman on education and training. Email feedback to