Tue | Oct 17, 2017

Put a stop to athlete factories

Published:Sunday | March 29, 2015 | 12:00 AMAinsley Walters

Boys and Girls' Championships passed this weekend with its usual fanfare of 'world's biggest high-school track and field meet' tag line, old boys and school faithful beating chests, slapping backs and high-fiving with eyes on the 'transfer market' ahead of the new school year.

That's exactly what major inter-secondary schools competitions have become: a horse-trade of so-called student athletes. This has, at times, resulted in pupils attending up to three institutions, made to repeat grade levels, some reaching age 18 in fourth form and unable to compete as fifth-formers, eventually quitting school altogether after their athletic worth is no more.

It goes even further. Scarce sixth-form spaces have been allotted to 'student athletes' who do not meet the Inter-Secondary Schools Sports Association's (ISSA) requirement of attaining passes in four Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate subjects to compete as sixth-formers.

This is done at the expense of students who meet schools' minimum educational standard for sixth form, six or more subjects in some cases, but are bypassed in favour of student athletes' four subjects, forcing parents to seek sixth-form space at alternative institutions at great cost, depriving pupils of a chance to continue at institutions they had attended for five or more years.

In other instances, student athletes who meet ISSA's minimum qualification are parachuted into sixth form from other schools via the transfer market, displacing existing students with similar qualifications, hopeful of transitioning to sixth form in an environment of friends and teachers with whom they are familiar.

The argument in support of the sixth-form abuse is that the grade level is a private venture undertaken by individual schools paid for by tuition fees, excusing it from the realm of public schools and funding from the Ministry of Education.

Don't sixth-formers use the same facilities provided for the rest of the school from Government's subvention no matter how meagre it may be?

In a classic case, two or so years ago, one such institution below Cross Roads pushed its marquee athlete into sixth form with three subjects, hoping he would have acquired a fourth by resitting exams in January, ahead of Champs registration.

Alas, that came to naught, and the chap afterwards left school - a sixth-form space wasted while students who had the minimum number of subjects had to continue their education elsewhere.

How did Jamaica's inter-secondary school sports system become transformed into a professional sports league with paid coaches replacing physical-education teachers amid the hiring of spotters to poach student athletes from lesser and rival schools?

Old boys' networks have sprung up to take control of sports departments of some high schools by way of pumping cash into sports programmes, some from questionable sources worthy of investigation by the Major Organised Crime and Anti-Corruption Agency.

In a carefully crafted system of manipulating all-too-willing principals, from which ISSA's hierarchy is drawn, these old boys effectively fund sports programmes, pay coaches, poach student athletes from other schools, offering full 'scholarships' of room and board, lunch money, pocket money, tuition fees, not to mention jobs for parents, household appliances, and even motor vehicles.

no subjects

Has anybody ever stopped to wonder how some of these student athletes who leave school without subjects have ready access to overseas connections and are either back in Jamaica as deportees or languishing in prisons abroad?

In other cases, some who do make it on a community college partial scholarship to the United States refuse to work to support themselves because they didn't have to when they were given old boys' 'scholarships' in Jamaica. They quickly quit school to join their overseas benefactors, eventually ending up in prison.

Minister of Education Ronald Thwaites recently attempted to put what has amounted to a Band-Aid over a festering sore by mandating that ISSA set up a 'clearing house' to insist on parents' permission, approval from the releasing and receiving schools, as well as adherence to pre-existing requirements.

The only thing new in this proposed clearing-house system is approval from the releasing school. All else remains the same.

What about the educational standards that poaching schools had put in place from the GSAT level, denying a student living next door to a traditional school a place in first form because he or she had failed to attain an average of 80, 90, or whatever percentage is required to gain a coveted placement?

In most instances, it is that same 'underperforming' student from that 'failing' primary school, who got a GSAT average of 60 but was not considered good enough to gain an educational placement at that 'traditional' high school, who is now being poached.

When that student's sporting potential is unlocked by a physical-education teacher at a 'failing' high school in Class Three at Champs, he or she suddenly becomes attractive, the target of the same marquee school that had refused him or her, and the myth is propagated that he or she can only become an athlete of worth if transferred to that institution.

Where does the educational standard come into play that had ruled out that student a year earlier? How do those students suddenly become 80- or 90-average candidates? Whose interest is being served in poaching these students?

Why should marquee schools be allowed to move the goalpost and lower the hurdles after first form so as to enable old boys to parasitically move in after the system has already creamed off the best of the academic lot by way of GSAT?

It should also be noted that this raid on schools became far more prevalent after a period during which the likes of Charlie Smith, Norman Manley, Dunoon, Tivoli and Bridgeport High dominated the Manning Cup from 1995 to 2002.

How will these 'lesser' secondary schools ever be able to improve and hold their heads high if, in the first place, they were denied academically sound children by way of GSAT, followed by a raid on students who could eventually put these schools on the map, making them attractive for future generations of teachers and students alike because of their sporting achievements?

Dubious claims are made of private tutoring by poaching schools to bring transfer students up to scratch, probably to meet ISSA's requirement of a 45 per cent average in four subject areas.

Minister Thwaites, your shot was well intended but fell short of the boundary. A true test of student welfare would be to mandate in the new clearing house that all secondary schools' adhere to their required averages, at each grade level, similar to what is done at grade seven entry for GSAT. This would certainly set the cat among pigeons.

- Ainsley Walters is a sports journalist. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and ainsley.walters@gleanerjm.com.