For education’s sake - Let’s stick with something
At the core of concerns raised in this series of Fourth Floor discussions was the lack of continuity in education. A national plan to reform Jamaica's education system was introduced in 1947.
Successive governments have attempted to fix the shortcomings in education but as soon as a new government is elected, the former priorities are changed and replaced by new ones with the effect that 54 years after Independence, the public debate about education is as intense as it has ever been.
Recognising that an important part of the journey towards transforming education is to have frank and open discussions, Fourth Floor participants spent more than two hours whittling down the main issues taxing the Ministry of Education and educators alike and pointed to various solutions.
The shifting character of the country's education policy across the broad sweep of time has identified trends which, if carefully examined, may help inform current thinking.
There have been numerous reforms designed to meet different objectives and generate better outcomes. The politics of education has seen various iterations such as introduction of the Common Entrance Examinations, its abolishment and replacement by the GSAT then there was introduction of a shift system, abolition of the shift system, introduction of free education, introduction of auxiliary fees and lately the end of such auxiliary fees.
Maxine Henry-Wilson, former education minister and a university lecturer, summed it up: "We keep doing the same thing over and over again but allowing nothing to mature."
She continued: "I am not sure if it is donor driven or what, but we start off on a course we say ok what we are going to do is put specialist teachers in those institutions and we are going to have windows for literacy and something comes along and we drop that and go to something else so we never get a chance to see what matures. Let's stick with something."
Could it be that these policy changes are really driven by the five-year electoral cycle? Whatever the answer, one thing is certain these changes have not solved the fundamental problems that beset our education system.
Lack of continuity
Trisha Williams-Singh, senior corporate relations manager at Digicel who also chairs a school board in rural Manchester, bemoaned the lack of continuity and cites it as one of the great challenges in education. In her third year as chairman of the New Forrest Infant Primary and Junior High, Williams-Singh joined other Fourth Floor voices in their plea: "If something works, keep it."
One programme that seemed to have worked for a short time was called SCOPE, meaning School Community Outreach Programme for Education. It was established in 1985.
"It was a lovely experience," recalled Dr Trevor Hamilton, management consultant. This was a programme designed to build robust partnerships between schools and the households which they served. More than 700 school communities were established.
Educator Carol Gentles remembered SCOPE as she chaired the group in Southern Trelawny.
"Once I left, there was nobody else who had the resources or the knowledge or the willingness to participate."
Hamilton felt there is a compelling case for the reintroduction of SCOPE, or something similar in nature which recognises the role of the family in education since this involvement can have a major impact on student learning, regardless of the family's social circumstance.
Fourth Floor participants agreed that education is not the concern of government only, the partners include teachers, children, the private sector, non-government organisations, religious bodies, parents and the community at large. As allies in education it is imperative that schools and communities come together.
What doesn't work is the outdated Education Act. "We've been reviewing and reviewing," said Henry-Wilson.
"Every time you come to a point where it is to be promulgated somebody comes and says add so and so. My point has always been, pass what you have and then add."
Williams-Singh has been keenly perusing this act and has found it to be antiquated and irrelevant in parts.