EDITORIAL - Absence of clarity, objectives in education plan

Published: Monday | December 21, 2009

Andrew Holness, the education minister, is certainly correct that the idea of extending the formal school-leaving age beyond 16 has been on the national agenda, or more correctly, talked about, for quite a long time.

Indeed, during Burchell Whiteman's tenure as education minister, he proposed keeping students in the classroom for an extra year, until they were 17. At around the same time, Edward Seaga, the then opposition leader, proposed two additional years of schooling. So, his proposal envisaged that children would remain in the education system until at least age 18.

Mr Seaga's suggestions included the creation of two additional grades - 12 and 13 - in secondary schools, to facilitate those students who did not qualify for sixth form or matriculate for tertiary institutions. This, on the face of it, is similar to what Minister Holness wants to pilot, beginning in January, in a number of secondary schools.

This newspaper is instinctively supportive of initiatives aimed at enhancing the quality of education in Jamaica or to support young people who are most at risk from the country's social and economic turbulence. The truth, however, is that there is a lack of clarity in what has so far been enunciated by Mr Holness, as well as an absence of specific objectives.

Not enough discussion

So, while we appreciate Mr Holness' sense of urgency in launching this project, we disagree that there has been full discussion on the proposal. Debate on the matter, going back to the time when Messrs Whiteman and Seaga first tabled their proposals, has been, at best, spasmodic.

We understand the concerns that drive initiatives such as those being proposed. About one-fifth of the annual grade-seven cohort never makes it to grade 11, with more than half the dropouts leaving by grade nine. Of those who survive to grade 11, as high as 15 per cent will not pass a single subject in the CXC secondary education exams and less than 20 per cent will do enough to matriculate to tertiary institutions or to qualify for decent jobs. Moreover, there is the oft-quoted statistic that 70 per cent of the Jamaican workforce is without training for the jobs performed. Then there is the fact that there is high unemployment among young people, the result of a poorly performing economy and undereducated and untrained youth.

Education crisis

Obviously, keeping children in school longer will help cushion the problem of joblessness among the young, while, assuming the appropriate training is in place, providing them with relevant skills for the world of work. However, there seems to us to be appropriate questions that should be raised, for instance, ought not life and work skills training to be integrated into the curriculum from grade seven, rather than being tacked on at the end, as appears to be contemplated. Or, perhaps such skills transfer should be part of a revised and rejuvenated national apprenticeship/youth employment programme, which provide firms with tax credits for participating in the scheme.

Part of the concern is that adding additional grades to the school system will lull teachers and administrators into a sense that the crisis in education, clearly obvious in the early years, which Mr Holness appears determined to correct, can be left to remedial efforts at grades 12 and 13. This is why there is need for full discussion, leading to clear objectives for what is proposed.

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