EDITORIAL - Stop this crime against children
By Ronnie Thwaites' estimate, the Jamaican Government spends around $20 billion a year playing education catch-up - that is, teaching students what they ought to have learnt in earlier grades.
"We put too much reliance on remedial education," complained Mr Thwaites, who has been the island's education minister since January.
Mr Thwaites is right on several fronts.
For what Jamaica does now is inefficient and wasteful, with uncertain, and mostly poor, outcomes. A fix is, however, possible if the country takes the tough decisions, starting with rebalancing the country's education budget in favour of early-childhood education. It will require resisting the pressure of a small, but loud and articulate group in the tertiary sector.
The case for rebalancing is, however, compelling.
Mr Thwaites' $20 billion is more than 28 per cent of the education budget of $70.4 billion. Roughly, it is equivalent to the allocation to primary education and is 45 per cent of what goes to primary and secondary education combined. It is 10 times more than the spend on early-childhood education. And it recurs.
For despite the consistent policy pronouncements and efforts at reform, no more than a fifth of the students who 'graduate' from secondary schools each year do well enough to matriculate directly to university.
The real problem is that Jamaica's education is built on a rickety foundation, starting with the critical early-childhood system, that segment that caters to children in the critical formative period up to age five. More than 200,000 children fall in this group, and more than 90 per cent of them are enrolled in early-childhood institutions, mostly over 2,000 community basic schools, plus 130 government infant schools, or primary schools with infant departments.
The problem is that basic schools, including most of the nearly 1,900 recognised by the education ministry, are poor. They are overcrowded, with too few teachers, who, for the most part, are untrained or undertrained, and poorly paid. Many earn not much above minimum wage.
It is not surprising, therefore, that fewer than 40 per cent of the students who enter grade one at age six master the full inventory of readiness for primary education and that the worst performance is among children who attend basic schools. Only about two-thirds of them properly recognise letters and numbers, against 90 per cent for preparatory-school children. Poor performance follows on. At grade four, fewer than half of the children master the numeracy inventory, while up to 30 per cent of children are not yet literate.
The calculation is that it would require an annual investment of around $7 billion to $8 billion a year to fix the early-childhood system - training teachers, upgrading classrooms and providing teaching and learning aids. That is less than half of what is spent on remedial efforts throughout the education system.
Some of the money for early childhood, eventually, will come from the savings on remedial efforts. It may not be possible at this time to significantly increase the size of the overall budget. We might, however, start by slicing, say, 30 per cent from the allocation to the tertiary system while searching elsewhere for savings to transfer to the early-childhood sector.
Unlike university students, these children may be incapable of mounting demonstrations, but they still deserve justice.
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