Editorial | PEP in the universe of Patois
It is possible for it to have slipped under the radar, thus failing to receive the detailed attention it deserves. Which would be a shame, given its potential to lead to the most far-reaching and consequential change in education policy since internal self-government in Jamaica. That, however, depends on whether the idea finds its way into the proposals of the task force established by the People's National Party (PNP) to shape its education policy, that the party returns to government in the near future, or can persuade the Holness administration to a consensus on the matter.
The issue is whether Jamaican Creole should be recognised as a distinct language and used as a language of instruction, alongside English, in the island's schools. Ronald Thwaites, the shadow education minister, has apparently arrived at the position that it should be. That, on the face of it, is a substantial victory for activists like Professor Hubert Devonish, the head of the Jamaica language unit at the University of the West Indies, Mona, who, for decades, have advocated for Patois' acceptance not only as the lingua franca for the vast majority of Jamaicans, but for its official use, including in schools.
Mr Thwaites, who was the education minister during the PNP's 2012-2016 administration, and credited for attempts at lifting standards, didn't always favour experimenting with Patois in education. Indeed, he appeared to have been decidedly against it and insistent on English as the only language of instruction and the one Jamaicans had to formally learn.
"The language of employment, of instruction, of professionalism, the language of world view is the English language, not anything else," he declared in 2012.
However, writing in this newspaper on Monday, against the background of the controversy over the Government's introduction last month of a new curriculum for primary schools, which will form the basis of an exam next May to test the readiness of grade-six students for secondary education, Mr Thwaites complained of the hurried implementation of the new system, as well as the low level of literacy of many of these 11- and 12-year-olds in standard English. The result was that large numbers of them couldn't handle questions of meaning and interpretation in a recent mock exam.
The real problem
"Language, then, is the real problem," he argued. "Jamaican Creole is the first idiom of the majority" and students' knowledge of English may have been sufficient for them to check the multiple-choice boxes in the outgoing Grade Six Achievement Test, but was inadequate for the Primary Exit Profile (PEP) that emphasises critical thinking and explanations.
Added Mr Thwaites: "In Jamaica, the figure between the command of standard English required in PEP and the familiarity of most students only in Jamaican Creole creates the huge difference in outcomes and explains what we are bemoaning in exam results." And the fix was beyond tweaks.
"The seismic shift on what and how, and in what language we teach and learn, can no longer be postponed and will require much more time for reassessment," Mr Thwaites said. "The effort to introduce PEP has brought one of Jamaica's fundamental dichotomies to the fore."
This newspaper agrees with Mr Thwaites. It has been a long-held assumption that Jamaicans speak English and absorb the language by osmosis. We have insisted that English should be taught as you would a foreign language, alongside Jamaican Creole. This does not obviate the need for Jamaicans to be educated in English, which may indeed be easier if they have the support of Creole in the classroom.
Mr Thwaites has made a substantial political move, having, as his party's spokesman on education, placed the matter squarely on the agenda. The PNP now has to make clear whether his statement was a declaration of policy.