Ronald Thwaites | Fixing schools
I always want to be very respectful about the efforts by the Ministry of Education to refashion the hopelessly unequal allocation of human, financial and infrastructural resources in the nation’s almost 4,000 schools and colleges.
This is because I know of the good earnest of most of those directing policy at all levels; trying their best and achieving small but important advances, unless undermined by the occasional self-obsessed tin god at the helm.
Also, I am aware of the tremendous power of complacency; the urge to pretty up things for professional and political purposes and to find an excuse for every shortcoming.
So much of a prelude to say that the idea of placing low-performing, grade-six students in traditional high schools from September coming should not be supported. It is a desperate and hopeless shortcut to the objective of better outcomes, which the nation urgently needs.
Bluntly, students who underperform in the Primary Exit Profile (PEP) tests are those who cannot read, write and compute adequately; those who have not mastered the very basic principles of science and social studies. Our high schools are not the places for remediation of these basic deficiencies.
Infusing a classroom or two of semi-literate students into Campion or Munro will mean that either they are separated into an apartheid-like atmosphere or, if blended into the regular programme, will, cruelly for all, be unable to keep up and will hold back the progress of the higher achievers.
This is not inclusive education. This is not what the twinning of schools implies. This is not levelling up or closing the class gap. It is watering down the nodes of excellence in a binge of populism (quite different from socialism), which, like so many things government does, substitutes gestures and posturing for systemic reform.
There is not one traditional high school in Jamaica that is not now becoming a healthy mix of students of every social class. The best-enabled schools provide reasonably for the financial needs of those young people from challenged households who come with the basic, inescapable prerequisites for the educational levels that those schools offer.
Instead of tinkering with the present system of high-school allocation, the harder and better task is to drastically improve the competencies of ALL grade-six students by investing heavily in primary and pre-primary schooling. Money for this has to be the major new allocation in the Budget, which will be presented tomorrow afternoon, if we are to have any hope of really equalising high-school opportunities, cauterising crime and violence and achieving high economic and social growth.
Just think how much more teachers could impart from grade seven upwards if the basic competencies, academic and social, were present in all their students. There would be less frustration, less of the ‘war zone’, which is how some describe many classrooms; more than a measly 60 per cent of teaching and learning time would be available for the syllabus.
In short order, and with other support like churches renewing their commitment to education, all high schools will show improvement.
Meanwhile, at the risk of tedious repetition, and as an affordable half-measure, can we resolve to use the period between the end of PEP in spring and September morning, to enable an intense period of remediation for those students who we already know, even before the results are available, have not reached the required standards.
Shortcuts will not fix educational deficits. Let us begin to do it right this year.
Ronald Thwaites is member of parliament for Kingston Central. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.