Sun | Sep 23, 2018

Hopeful for education

Published:Tuesday | September 2, 2014 | 12:00 AM

Yesterday's start of the new school year was not without some of the accustomed glitches and complaints - the inadequacy of furniture, problems with registration of new students, and the matter of distribution of Smarter Cards required by students to ride Jamaica Urban Transit Company (JUTC) buses at a preferential fare.

Perhaps if we didn't have these problems, we'd have to invent them, or others. The chaos, contrived or otherwise, provides a sense of drama - of students off on an adventure, with their parents, too, enveloped in the suspense. Indeed, the beginning of the school year should be an adventure, an opening to a new world of learning for the tens of thousands of children who enter the primary system and those who move to high schools.

Unfortunately, for too long, for too many of our students, if the new school year held bright promise, that soon dimmed and faded.

This abandonment of hope is in the third of the children who leave early-childhood facilities unprepared for learning at the secondary level; in the more than 40 per cent of kids in secondary schools who, at grade four, are neither literate nor numerate; in the nearly half of grade 11 students who are screened out of the secondary school exams in math and English; and in the fact that less than 20 per cent of the students who actually do these exams pass five subjects at a single sitting.

Yet, this newspaper approaches this school year with a greater sense of optimism. At least, we are more positive about future education outcomes than at any time in recent years.

First, we were buoyed by the improved performance by Jamaican students, especially in the foundation subjects of math and English, in this year's Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate exams. It is clearly unacceptable that only 56 per cent of the grade 11 cohort wrote the math test, meaning that more than 18,000 students were screened out of the exam. But we can't be unmindful that the pass rate, at 56 per cent, was 13 percentage points better than a year earlier. Passes in English, at 67 per cent, improved marginally. There were also gains in a dozen other subjects.

These statistics are, by themselves, encouraging. But we are made more hopeful by the initiatives announced by the education minister, Ronald Thwaites, to build on the gains of the past year. Eighty math specialists and teaching coaches are being deployed to 150 schools that have problems with the teaching of mathematics. Sixteen schools are being taken off the shift system, which will allow students more contact time with teachers. Further, the education ministry is enhancing its intervention in failing schools and the minister has announced an initiative, similar to a proposal by this newspaper, for the geographic clustering of schools for administrative management.

The things being implemented by Mr Thwaites are not all entirely new ideas. He is, in many respects, building on and refining programmes and ideas of his predecessor, Andrew Holness. That is as it should be. For gains are not sustainable if policy is the subject of whim, partisan politics or based on personality. These gains can be accelerated if there is strong support by teachers for the initiatives. Too often, they offer inertia.

Smarter Cards at schools?

In recent days, there have been long lines at outlets of the Jamaica Urban Transit Company (JUTC) for its Smarter Cards, without which persons, including students, who pay discounted fares, will be unable to ride its buses.

Part of the problem is our penchant in Jamaica for doing things at the last moment. But some of these difficulties, it seems to us, might have been obviated if it were possible for students to acquire their travel cards at their schools, say as part of the registration process.

Except that this is technologically, or for other reasons already anticipated by the JUTC, impractical, it is an idea that it might still pursue.