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Fixing GSAT 'inequities'
published: Thursday | August 28, 2003

Martin Henry

SEPTEMBER MORNING is almost here. And some 60,000 young Jamaicans are heading into some sort of post-primary education. Some will be in Traditional High Schools. Most will be in Upgraded High Schools. Others will be in Junior High Schools. And the most unfortunate of the lot will plod on in the upper grades of the remaining All-Age Schools.

Five years later, in 2008, present trends continuing, the vast majority of these starters will not have enough CXC passes to qualify for tertiary education or enough skills for work. But in a handful of elite Traditional High Schools 90+ per cent of graduates will have passed English and Mathematics and a number of other subjects. The national average for English passes bounces about around the middle 30s per cent and that for Mathematics around the middle 20s per cent.

Thanks to the publication of CXC data by the National Council on Education and excellent analyses of the data by people like Professor Stephen Vasciannie in his Gleaner column, the public now has fairly ready access to hard data on school performance which generally confirms the street identification of 'good' schools. This is knowledge to which the public has a right, particularly front-line stakeholders in the system.

Parents and students are using the information on school quality, traditionally from the old and trustworthy word of mouth source, to make intelligent choices. The new Minister of Education, striving to make her mark on the system, at a Gleaner's Editors' Forum has pointed to an urgent need to address the inequities in the education system whereby the top students from the GSAT are 'bunched' in a handful of 'name brand' schools.

The Minister's comments have attracted editorial response in this medium and elsewhere, and rightly so. The inequities in the system are ultimately everybody's concern. And the levelling down, equalising correction towards which the Minister seems to be drifting is of equally great concern. If the bunching will harm the country's education system, the unbunching will harm the students, the system and the country in its own way.

The Minister has inherited an inequitable system which will be hell to change at fundamental levels. And the cure certainly must not be worse than the disease. As The Gleaner editorial of August 20 reminded us "a multi-tiered system of secondary education was deliberately created by successive administrations since Independence as alternative types of institutions were added to the few old traditional high schools." And there has never been created a standard unifying High School Diploma certifying successful completion of secondary education.

Over most of this history most students had no access to the prestigious, stepping-stone GCE and its successor CXC examinations. And performance in these examinations, which stood in for a high school diploma, has been generally poor except in the so-called elite schools among the Traditional High Schools.

On top of its function as a grade six/primary education achievement test, the GSAT is a placement exam like the Common Entrance. As long as there is an inequality of places, a system of allocating scarce good places will have to operate. Let us not use it to penalise high achievers.

The GSAT assigns places by student's choice, location, and performance. The Ministry of Education has never explained or made transparent how it mixes these factors in placement decision-making. It seems pretty clear that the three can't hang together. Now the Minister concedes that top performers are bunched up in name brand schools by choice. What to do?

There are no quick fixes to the historical problem of inequity in the system. Workable solutions are likely to be evolutionary rather than revolutionary, slow and steady rather than quick and dramatic. There are already some clear pointers: Fix the base of the system; pump resources into Early Childhood and Primary education, which may mean trimming state support for tertiary. Flush illiteracy, the greatest handicap, out of the system. To copy the Minister's "name brand" market language, upgraded schools must progressively grow their brand beginning with what they have. Rather than clamouring for quality students, which must do great violence to choice and to the rewarding of success, the focus should be on improving student quality, steadily, progressively.

The Minister can do some radical things to drive this process, short of scattering top performers about the system: The business of the principal as accountable, goal-setting manager, with which the JTA has found such little favour. Smart curricula for upgrading incoming students. Learning resources. Incentives to master teachers to serve in non-name brand schools, a challenge to the collective bargaining position of their union. Payment by performance against clear, quantifiable school-based benchmarks. Training in educational leadership and significantly higher salary differentials for leadership.

Publicising of school performance/improvements, now routinely done in the UK. Help communities and parents to light a fire under their schools, while giving support. For example, a part of school subventions could be channelled through a well organised, accountable PTA. School boards composed and mandated for, and held responsible to community and Government for school leadership, from curriculum to finance.

The truth is, envied name brand schools were not created overnight. We know a good deal about what builds top performers from scratch ­ company or school: strong visionary leadership, usually long-serving, focused goal-setting, discipline, team-building and motivation, ethos, rewarding performance and results, building customer/stakeholder loyalty and support.

It took four decades in Independence to design and consolidate this mess in education. A decade or two to fix it is not too much. Levelling does not bring the bottom up; levelling pulls the top down. Don't do it, Minister!

Martin Henry is a communication specialist.

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