Sun | Oct 25, 2020

Can Jamaica's record of performance be salvaged? Part 1

Published:Sunday | August 22, 2010 | 12:00 AM
Edward Seaga
The real necessity is to train pupils to read, write and acquire knowledge of literacy and numeracy before being exposed to the rest of the curriculum. - File

Another anniversary of Jamaica's Independence has passed, leaving us uncomfortably close to the anniversary that will count the most. I refer to the 50th anniversary of Jamaican Independence, a hallmark date because 50 years is enough time for outstanding achievements to be recorded whether for a device, human effort or national performance. In other words, that date will be judgement day. Will we be found wanting?

In my last address to the House of Representatives on January 18, 2005, I decided to summarise what concerned me most in leaving public life by retiring after 45 years. Without a doubt, what weighed heaviest on my mind was the failure to really come to grips with the national divide - the haves and the have-nots, the two Jamaicas, or by whichever other name it may be identified. I had made it my life's mission to significantly close the gap. Because my life in public services spanned virtually all of this period, I could speak with some authority on the emergence of the new nation and its ulcerous dichotomy.

Not all the affairs of a country are of the same importance. There are priorities which are not difficult to determine. A government has to be responsible for:

establishing a functional education system capable of producing knowledgeable, productive, civic-minded graduates to build a society;

providing security and justice for the people; and

establishing an economy capable of growth to create and sustain sufficient income to satisfy a reasonable quality of life.

These are the three most important functions of good governance.

Bald truth

My concern has not been whether over the past several decades, these goals have been achieved, but whether there has been reasonable or significant improvement in reducing the gap. The bald truth is that in these three most critical areas of governance, the record of the period since Independence, 1962, has been one of sustained stagnation or, worse yet, failure.

Starting with education, there has been no significant movement away from the dismal situation of some 70 per cent of students graduating from secondary schools achieving minimal results: zero passes, marginal passes in one or two subjects, or not being allowed to sit the school-leaving exam because of expected failure. This has been the consistent result from the very beginning of the programme to transform the educational system commencing in the mid 1960s when 70 per cent of primary-school children were given entrance to secondary schools, en masse for the first time. The dismal outcome has not changed despite a programme of building 60 new secondary schools to fully accommodate these students.

This was followed later by free tuition, and still later by free textbooks on core subjects, free school lunches and better-trained teachers. If with all this support the result has continued over the decades to be puny, the system has to be an acknowledged failure in that it is not producing an improved proportion of successful graduates to help to close the gap between those who become learned and those who are without basic learning.

Economic burden

It is those without learning that include the unemployed, although many are employed. In the modern world, it is virtually impossible for a small proportion of productive or otherwise-employed persons, to carry the economic burden of so high a percentage of unemployed. This is a recurrent result which causes the number of hopeless members in the labour to swell until they are large enough to create their own subculture.

I spoke to this phenomenon in my inaugural address of May, 2005, at the University of the West Indies, titled 'The Folk Roots of Jamaican Cultural Identity': "there is a counter culture of growing depth and strength. It is composed of those who have strayed from the stabilisation of their families and have abandoned the faith of their fathers. They have become rootless and, therefore, ruthless, relying only on their upbringing to guide them in the use of might to secure respect and right, at any cost, because, in their isolation, they see themselves as 'done de'd aredy'."

This dynamic segment is to be found among young people who have shallow religious roots, detached from civil society, distanced form the tradition of the family, impatient with frustrating economic barriers and deprived of social space, creating their own order rooted in their own values and imperatives. They translate this into a way of life-honouring respect, power, money, sex and, where necessary, the retribution of violence. They exist in a counter-culture which has broad support without theology, ideology, or even social commitment. It is individualistic and impulsive, deeply grounded in an expressive and creative self. As such, it carries a powerful base of cultural release which has solidly captivated a generation of youth as a renegade route to respect. The indicators of success emphasise material wealth. This culture allows those with few resources to access the 'bling-bling' indicators of material success, ensuring that they can never be ignored. Dancehall is the musical expression of these realities."

This should be troubling enough to sound an alarm as the growing surplus of uneducated, unemployable youth become more toxic to the social system. The need to find a solution cannot be more urgent.

Is there a manageable solution to such a problem-riddled Jamaican education system? If there is, would the solution be practical, timely and as cost effective as would be required?

I am of the view that all these requirements can be met because the real solution, which would effectively transform the system, is already in place and only requires a reordering of the curriculum, a cost-efficient exercise.

Simply put, the real necessity is to train pupils to read, write and acquire knowledge of literacy and numeracy before being exposed to the rest of the curriculum. This would entail a simple switch in the teaching process requiring the first two years of primary schooling to be devoted entirely to teaching pupils to master reading, writing and numeracy (the so-called three Rs) to a level attainable at the age of grade two, an entirely achievable programme. After that, the rest of the curriculum can proceed with virtually all pupils able to follow as numerate, literate students.

This does not happen now. Only some 50 per cent of primary school students have the literacy capability to follow teaching instructions in the other subjects of the primary-school curriculum. As a consequence, they lag behind seriously in the teaching programme. Ultimately, this affects their entry to secondary school. Would it not be wonderful if nearly all students could enter secondary schools equipped with a sound primary-school education, which they would receive because they have been able to master training as sufficiently literate and numerate students? Ultimately, the 70 per cent who graduate as failures would diminish, resulting in higher percentages of educated graduates, the opposite of what now occurs. A labour force with far more skills at all levels would follow. This costless transformation, which can be expeditiously achieved in a two-year programme, would be the equivalent of finding the Holy Grail! All that is needed is the political will.

The 50th anniversary of Independence would then become truly a turning point in the transformation of the education system, for the first time, at last!

Edward Seaga is a former prime minister. He is now the pro-chancellor of UTech and a Distinguished Fellow at the University of the West Indies. Email: or