Hubert Devonish, GUEST COLUMNIST
The Way It Could Have Been
"The Ministry of Education and Youth has said it is satisfied with the overall pass rate of 84 per cent recorded in last year's O'Level exams, although this represents a slight decline on the previous year's figure which was 88 per cent ... . According to the director for secondary schools, Mrs Shilla Pool, subjects like geography, French, mathematics and art have maintained their level while there have been considerable improvements in two subjects, namely biology and history ... .'
This must sound like a fairy tale to our minister of education. Where is this fabled place in which a Ministry of Education official could be speaking in this way? This is a report which appeared on August 29, 2012 in the Nation newspaper of the Republic of the Seychelles. The article deals with the national performance at the GCE Cambridge examinations of June 2012.
Obviously, our own Ministry of Education would love to have been in a position to make a similar kind of announcement concerning the CSEC 2012 examination results. But alas, Jamaica has so far refused to make the hard decisions which Seychelles made three decades ago.
THE SEYCHELLES WAY
What hard choices did they make? The Republic of the Seychelles is a country made up of a collection of islands in the Indian Ocean, with a population of just 90,000 people. The islands which make up this country were initially colonised by the French, who employed imported slave labour from Africa.
In this context, a French Creole developed not too different from the French Creole languages of the Caribbean. In the 18th century, the Seychelles regularly changed hands between the British and French. From the early 19th century onwards, however, it remained British, until independence in 1976.
At independence, English and French were the two official languages and languages of education, to the exclusion of Seychelles Creole, the native language of the majority of the population. This majority spoke neither English nor French, with all of the expected effects on education.
In 1979, a new constitution was put in place which declared, "The national languages of Seychelles shall be Creole, English and French." It goes on to say: "... A person may use any of the national languages for any purpose but a law may provide for the use of any one or more of the national languages for any specific purpose." This form of words has been kept in the 1993 Seychelles constitution currently in force.
Up until 1979, the use of English and French as the only languages of education meant a high adult illiteracy rate and an equally high failure rate among pupils in school. With the new status granted to Seychelles Creole, a mass adult literacy programme was launched in that language. In addition, there was language reform in the school system which has remained in place to this day.
In primary schools, from the first year, Creole is the language in which children learn to read and write. It is also used as the language of instruction for subjects such as mathematics and science. English is introduced as a subject in the second year of primary school. In the fourth year, English begins to replace Creole as the medium of instruction. French begins to be taught as a foreign language in the third year.
This is a trilingual programme in a Creole-speaking country not too different historically and culturally from Jamaica. Even though somewhat short of the fully bilingual programme being proposed for Jamaica, the Seychelles trilingual programme in education has been quite successful, as the Seychelles GCE Cambridge O'Level results for 2012 and previous years demonstrate. This is the way things could have been for Jamaica if ... .
CAN WE AFFORD REFORM?
One response to the challenge of implementing a fully bilingual education programme for Jamaica is the argument that this would represent an additional cost to an already heavily indebted state. This response ignores the existing wastage of resources and the hidden costs associated with this.
According to the Labour Market Information System of the Jamaican Ministry of Labour, GOJ expenditure on education in 2009 was J$65 billion. In that same year, it cost the state an average of $62,377 to educate a pupil at primary-school level and $75,584 to do so at the secondary level.
The Jamaican Ministry of Education Annual Review of the Education Sector tells us that, in the 2009-10 school year, there were 7,198 repeaters at the primary-school level and 3,124 at the secondary level. Repeating represents an additional cost, in the form of the expenditure to have repeaters do over what they have done already. The annual expenditure per pupil multiplied by the number of repeaters would tell us how much these repeaters cost the state.
Primary-school repeaters in 2009-10 cost $448.9 million, and repeaters at the secondary level, $236.1 million. The total cost of repeating over the entire primary and secondary system, therefore, is $685 million.
Let us accept that the language practices of the education system are not the only causes of these pupils repeating and that a change in these practices would only halve the repeater rate. That would mean that, once implemented across the entire 11 years of primary and secondary education, savings in the order of $342.5 million per year, at 2009-10 rates, would become available to help fund the reform. This could easily fund ALL of the research and translation needed to reform the system.
Perhaps the major cost of a fully bilingual education system in Jamaica would be textbook production. If this were pursued in the traditional way, there would either be twice as many textbooks or textbooks which are twice as large, given the need for English and Jamaican language versions for each for content subjects.
In the digital age, however, reproduction and distribution of written text is almost free. Obviously, in 2012, the technology for accessing digital text is still relatively expensive. However, as with all aspects of modern information technology, prices keep falling rapidly, a fact which works in favour of a programme which will be implemented over a 12-year period, with the later years, specifically at secondary school level, being the ones requiring large volumes of written material.
A national bilingual education programme would be implemented on a phased basis over 13 years, starting with the cohort of four-year-olds entering the pre-primary level in, say, 2014-5. Materials would have been prepared and teachers trained for delivery in the preceding year. During 2014-15, teachers would be trained and teaching materials prepared for the second pre-primary, 2015-16, and a similar pattern followed for each succeeding year until grade 11.
TRANSFORMATION IN 12 YEARS
In 12 years, the entire system would have been transformed, with the 2014-15 entry cohort entering grade 11, and the children in all the lower grades now learning and being taught in both English and Jamaican. This is the process by which Papiamentu, a Spanish-Portuguese Creole language spoken in Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao, is being implemented as the main language of education in Curacao, right here in the Caribbean. Dutch, English and Spanish are introduced one by one, over the early years of primary school, as foreign languages which would be taught, alongside the mother tongue, Papiamentu.
Those who advocate for a bilingual education system and an officially bilingual Jamaica are treated to a backhanded compliment by our critics. They remark that we make the case using the very best of English. Speaking for myself, I do so in the name of the countless number of my classmates who left the education system with a level of competence in English much less than mine.
It is, I think, the responsibility of us, the privileged few, the ones who got away, to push for a set of language practices in the school system which make us the norm rather than the exception.
The question for us, then, is not one of whether the country can afford the reform. It is rather one of whether Jamaica can afford NOT to reform. I have tried to suggest here that we can get it if we really want, but we do really have to try, try and try.
Hubert Devonish is professor of linguistics and coordinator of the The Jamaican Language Unit. Email feedback to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.