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Editorial | Why did Jamaica’s argument fail at CXC?

Published:Thursday | May 14, 2020 | 12:12 AM

THIS NEWSPAPER is sympathetic to Jamaica’s position that the island’s students will not be ready for the Caribbean Examination Council’s (CXC) exams for regional secondary schools in July. Nonetheless, Karl Samuda, the de facto education minister, owes the public a fuller explanation of how the July date was chosen, including whether he was a participant in the discussions at which the decision was made.

For, by reputation, and some would insist temperament, Mr Samuda is a scrapper who we would not expect to acquiesce to a position that wasn’t in the country’s best interest. Or worse, having compromised, be mealy-mouthed about his action.

A number of facts about the management and timing of these exams need to be placed in context. First, CXC, which organises them, is an institution of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), a 15-member economic and functional cooperation group of which Jamaica is a member. It has the largest population of the countries that subscribe to CXC exams.

The CXC’s tests, the most popular of which are the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) and the Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Examination (CAPE), are held twice yearly, normally in January and May-June. This year, however, things went badly awry with the date for the latter tests.

Uneven Access to Digital Classes

The COVID-19 pandemic caused governments across the Caribbean to shutter schools and suspend classes. And even where countries have attempted to compensate for the school closures with online/digital delivery of instructions, students’ ability to use these systems is uneven. Some communities either don’t have access to the Internet, parents can’t afford the service, or schools and teachers are not equipped to present education digitally.

This problem is perhaps starkest in Jamaica, where the digital and economic divides are probably widest. Indeed, there have been much discussion among Jamaica’s education authorities about how students can catch up on classes and when various examinations, including those put on by CXC, should be held.

Last week, it was announced that CARICOM’s Council for Human and Social Development (COHSOD), the regional ministerial body with which CXC interfaces, had agreed to the July exams. These would be done digitally, rather than being, as usual, paper-based.

It is not clear who represented Jamaica at that virtual meeting. In the normal scheme of things, it would be Mr Samuda, who, for more than a year, has overseen the education ministry, although Prime Minister Andrew Holness is the de jure minister.

However, Mr Samuda indicated on Monday that Jamaica has not signed up to the July date. “The challenges are much greater (in Jamaica), and we don’t feel that we could make a commitment to hold those exams in July under the circumstances,” he said. “We are examining very carefully all our options and what possibilities exist for us to give our students the best opportunity to engage the process, having come out of a very challenging few months.”

There are now the obvious questions of whether CXC can, in the circumstances, make separate arrangements for Jamaica without undermining the integrity of its exams; if it will have to reverse its decision; and if Jamaica was ignored, or steamrolled, by COSHOD.

As is the case with all CARICOM ministerial councils, decisions by COSHOD, as is required by Article 27 of the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas, which governs CARICOM, are carried by “an affirmative vote of the member states comprising no less than three-quarters of the membership of the community”. So, conceivably, Jamaica was just outvoted.

If that was the case, it would seem, without additional facts and deeper insights, that CXC and COSHOD did not place too much weight on Jamaica’s numbers, or that our representatives weren’t sufficiently compelling with the logic they represented.

In 2019, of the approximately 125,000 students who registered for the CSEC exams, more than 61,000, or 49 per cent, were Jamaicans. They were followed by Trinidad and Tobago, who accounted for 20 per cent, and Guyana, nine per cent. Similarly, Jamaica led with 54 per cent of the approximately 31,000 students who registered for CAPE.

The numbers, at least, seem to be powerfully in Jamaica’s favour. Essentially, it accounts for half of the CXC students, and, it would seem, critical to its viability. We now need to hear about the rest of the argument, how well it was marshalled, and the logic behind its failure.