Densil A. Williams | Road to Prosperity: The Decade of Education project
Jamaica will not attain any real prosperity until it addresses the structural deficiencies that prevent the large mass of her people from attaining certification to allow them to participate in the globally competitive labour market through high-quality jobs or the establishment of internationally competitive enterprises.
The most fundamental of these deficiencies is in our education system. We must address the systemic issue there in order to deliver strong, sustainable, and inclusive economic growth for all.
Jamaica’s economic growth over the last 40 years is unimpressive. Average growth has been less than one per cent per year over the period. As such, the annual spend by each Jamaican increased by roughly US$4,250 over 40 years, or US$106 per year. When one takes into consideration depreciation of the currency and inflation, the paltry increase in per capita spend is completely eroded.
No doubt, this performance led the Andrew Holness administration to declare a new deal with the Jamaican people in 2016 to deliver five per cent growth in four years. Understandably, changing the narrative on growth from doom and gloom to a positive tone is welcome. However, this new deal has not materialised and will not be materialised anytime soon unless deep structural changes to some of the fundamental inhibitors to strong and sustained growth are addressed, head-on.
Over the years, the education system produced a handful of star performers. However, the majority of entrants have not done well. As such, Jamaica’s growth performance continues to be a challenge because of the unholy trinity of low productivity, low-quality jobs, and low levels of certification among the labour force.
To reverse this trend, there has to be a national consensus around the need for a better and inclusive educational system that will produce internationally competitive human resources. This national consensus, like what we had around reversing the severe debt burden, must be long and sustained. The Decade of Education project is aimed at accomplishing this.
WHY DO WE NEED A DECADE?
Jamaica’s human resources in the main are not internationally competitive. While a small handful of its population excel at what they do, the majority of citizens are still without certification and cannot participate effectively in a labour market that is changing towards knowledge-intensive work.
The Survey of Living Conditions 2016 shows some very grim statistics in this regard. For the working-age population, 25-59 years old, only 30 per cent of that cohort has any certification that can allow them to gain a job in the labour market or to matriculate to higher education. Further, in the age cohort of three-24, only 73 per cent are registered in an academic institution of learning. That is, 27 per cent of persons in the prime age for school are unattached.
This problem is worse in rural Jamaica. In rural areas, over 75 per cent of the working-age population do not possess any certification. Reversing these figures will take at least two full secondary-school cycles of five years each. Indeed, any serious campaign to move persons from poverty to prosperity must start with addressing educational outcomes, and moreso, in rural Jamaica.
Having two Jamaicas, with the “haves” in Kingston and its urban centres, and the “have-nots” in rural areas, will not get the country very far. The country is too small to have such a dichotomy. It cannot lead to sustained, long-term growth.
THE DECADE-LONG PROJECT
The vision of the Decade for Education project must be to ensure that all Jamaicans are educated and trained at internationally competitive levels. This will entail all citizens, in whatever areas of endeavour they choose, getting the relevant skills and education to allow them to compete in the global labour market, whether through employment or establishing high-quality, internationally competitive enterprises.
For this to happen, there are some fundamental reforms that must take place over the life of the project. These include, inter alia: curriculum reform, funding reforms, upgrade of the physical plants, and establishing new plants.
There is no doubt that efforts are being made to transform the education curriculum from pre-school to tertiary. However, it needs to be speeded up and take into consideration the new challenges that the Fourth Industrial Revolution, led by smart automation, will bring over the next three to four decades. The new curriculum has to be less content-based and focus more on: application, initiative, critical thinking, and problem solving. Content is ubiquitous, thanks to the Internet revolution.
Further, the system has to design multiple pathways for access to teaching and learning institutions. The traditional modes of using passes in exams only will not do. With a large number of persons who, for various reasons, are unable to attain at least five Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate subjects, they cannot to be excluded from the teaching and learning process. The curriculum has to take into consideration different learning styles and design programmes to meet these as well.
FINANCING A KEY PLANK
Financing education has to be a key plank of the reform. With only 30 per cent of the labour force having any form of certification and more so, 75 per cent of those in rural areas not having any form of certification, it is clear that there is an access problem in our education system. Access and financing generally go hand in hand.
The poorest persons in society cannot afford to pay for education, and as such, drop out of school at an early age. Indeed, in the poorest quintile, only 39 per cent of students have all the required text books, while in the wealthiest quintile, over 84 per cent of students have all required books and teaching and learning materials.
Students cannot do well in school without the required resources to facilitate teaching and learning. This is all a part of financing the future education project.
Similarly, there needs to be a focus on the upgrade of physical plants to make the teaching and learning environment more aesthetically appealing. Too many schools are in a deplorable condition and do not inspire the teaching and learning process.
In addition, more schools need to be built to reduce overcrowding and also the long distance students travel to school, especially in rural areas. In rural areas, students travel an average of 10km in order to get to school.
Transportation costs alone weigh heavily on the budget of poorer persons to attend school. Data show that lunch, tuition, and transportation alone take up 60 per cent of the education budget of households. Bringing more schools closer to the students will help to alleviate this burden.
To make the Decade of Education project a reality, a multi-skillset implementation committee needs to be established. A great deal of work already exists regarding the issues in education. We need to act on these findings before it is too late.
Espousing the Decade of Education project as a national imperative will galvanise the human capital and financial and technical expertise to transform the system and watch Jamaica march to real prosperity for all. The number-one priority is to ensure that no child is left behind.