Thu | Oct 18, 2018

A high-school graduate's story

Published:Thursday | September 4, 2014 | 12:00 AM


Three years ago, I had the privilege of running an adult learning centre in Kingston. For two hours, three evenings a week, we transformed a church hall into five classrooms to help people predominantly from surrounding communities improve their literacy and numeracy skills.

Our classes ranged from remedial to the equivalent of the grade four curriculum in primary schools. Typically, our youngest students were in their 20s and the oldest in their 70s. All had stopped attending school by third form. However, I remember when I met my first high-school graduate.

It was registration day and it was pretty routine for us so far: fill out form, give literacy and numeracy assessment, determine at which level to place each student, accept the registration fee if the student was able to pay, go through brief orientation with student, tell them how much I look forward to working with them, and sign off with an enthusiastic "See you next week!"

Tahjae strolled in and took a seat. It was obvious that this was not what he had planned to do with his Monday night. His older brother, Winston, a star student, had informed me earlier that he had planned to bring his younger brother. We began going through the registration form together and then we reached the section regarding the level of education obtained.

"How far did you reach in school?"

"I graduated."

"What level?"

"High school."


Perhaps sensing my scepticism, Tahjae reached into his pocket and pulled out his high-school graduation picture from his wallet. Looking at him in his gown, holding a diploma canister while being hugged by his mother and grandmother, I sat there thinking his resistance made sense; he is far too advanced for this programme. This is a fairly common occurrence, so I started thinking of places we suggest for students in this position. I was not prepared for what happened next.

The first task of the literacy assessment was to identify the name and sound of each vowel. Tahjae's tough demeanour started to fade. While he named all five letters, he could not identify their sounds correctly. We moved on to the rest of the alphabet. Tahjae could not identify or give the correct sounds for more than half the letters. At this point, it was obvious, he was not being resistant; he was guarded. Tahjae was an 18-year-old high-school graduate whose literacy was below kindergarten level. I assigned him to the remedial class.

Tahjae's story illustrates a devastating reality that we have ignored for decades: our education system operates as an assembly line, repeatedly failing the majority of students who enter it. This includes not only those who are expelled or drop out before fifth form, but even those who see it through to the end.


You may say to yourself, 'This is an extreme case', and I want to believe that, too. But with the data available stating that on average, 60 per cent of students pass English in the Grade Six Achievement Test; roughly 40 per cent of the fifth-form cohort pass English in the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC); and on average, 40 per cent of fifth-formers are not allowed to sit CSEC English with the most common reason reported being because they are not ready to sit the exam. It is likely that this is more common than we think.

Literacy fundamentally acts as a protection against injustice, and too many of our teens leaving school are not armed with it. Literacy allows people to understand forms, contracts, pay slips, and it provides access to information on laws, nutrition and health. It goes beyond the ability to read and write, literacy affects people's feelings of self-worth. They question their capabilities, become dependent on others and become targets of exploitation.

So as we confront one of Jamaica's most difficult and urgent challenges, we have to be given an honest account of how and why the education system has failed and what comprehensive actions will be taken to address the failures. The Ministry of Education declares that every child can and must learn. Our job is to hold them to it and ensure that this does not continue to be an empty promise. There is no time to waste. Another group of students depends on it.