Editorial | Strengthen primary schools first
Fayval Williams’ plan to make technical and vocational education and training (TVET) a critical part of the curriculum of Jamaica’s primary schools must be subject to deep analysis and serious discussion with stakeholders.
For not only is Ms Williams’ proposal contrary to the approach to TVET by most countries – including those that make technical education central to the education system – it seems unlikely that the plan will address the real crisis of Jamaica’s primary schools: that a third of their graduates are illiterate and more than half merely limp along with maths and English.
Further, Ms Williams’ declared policy seems neither to take into account, nor to bear any relationship to, the findings and recommendations of the Patterson Commission on the transformation of Jamaica’s education system. That report, delivered nearly two years ago, is yet to be subject to a government-led public debate. It hasn’t been tabled in Parliament. Purportedly, its findings are being implemented under the guidance of a government-appointed committee chaired by the economist, Adrian Stokes.
In the report, the commission, chaired by the Jamaican academic and writer, Orlando Patterson, uses the phrase “primary schools” 77 times, and “primary education” a further 18 times. In none is either phrase linked to a call for TVET to be introduced at the primary level, although the commission made several recommendations for advancing technical and vocational training in high schools and colleges and outside the formal education system.
The education minister’s announcement of her plan to take TVET to primary schools was unveiled last week at a regional conference on the subject in Kingston.
Ms Williams told the conference that she was pursuing a national mandate “to get more TVET teachers into our schools as we expand it into our primary schools”.
“Increasingly, at various levels of the society, there is a recognition that we need to develop an education system with multiple paths to success to support and cater to the diverse strengths and talents of our people,” Ms Williams said. “It does not have to be a traditional two-track. The traditional divide between an academic path and vocational path has become artificial and obsolete because what is cognitive and technical is not clear-cut. This is because today, a person needs both knowledge and skills in order to do well.”
There is not much, if anything, on which to disagree with Ms Williams on those points. The larger question, however, is what ought to be the mission of Jamaica’s primary schools – especially at this time. Most Jamaicans are likely to concur that their job must be to produce students who are literate and numerate, capable of analytic thinking and ready to absorb education at a higher level.
The Patterson Report, highlighting the outcomes of the 1999 Primary Exit Profile (PEP) test for grade six students, said: “Although the great majority of its children have access to primary and secondary schooling, Jamaica has a severe learning crisis, in that a majority of students at the end of primary school remain illiterate and innumerate and most leave secondary school with no marketable skills.”
That year, only 41 per cent of the students passed mathematics in the PEP test, which emphasises analytic thinking over the rote-learning exam that it replaced. Forty-nine passed maths and 55 per cent were successful in language arts.
“A breakdown of the language arts results indicated that a third of students at the end of primary school could not read, 56 per cent could not write, and 57 per cent could not identify information in a simple sentence,” the report said.
Those statistics have improved a bit in the past two years. But there are questions about the robustness of the data, given the modification of the test to accommodate the school closures and learning loss during the COVID-19 pandemic. Nonetheless, a lot of the remedial work has to be done with many students, who, at best, enter high school only marginally literate.
Further, while, as Minister Williams observed, old assumptions about the separateness of traditional and TVET education is eroding, it is even clearer that illiterate students can’t absorb technical and vocational education and training. Carpenters in a 21st century economy are expected to be capable of properly reading and understanding instructions, and to appropriately take and translate measurements to the things they build. Or someone assembling robots has to be in command of the instructions. Obviously, Jamaica’s primary schools are not sufficiently providing students with the foundation to do those things.
What would probably be more appropriate than adding TVET to this weak base is to bring primary schools back to basics: turning out well-adjusted literate and numerate students. As to pursue that with a sense of mission.
Perhaps the country most recognised for its system of technical and vocational education is Germany. Nearly 45 per cent of high school students from dual academic/vocational training schools and approximately 56 per cent enter a dual system. Notably, though, TVET education is a secondary school endeavour. The situation is similar in Switzerland, another country renowned for its system of vocational education and training.
In France, Belgium, Great Britain and Canada, too, TVET begins at secondary school and colleges. Primary schools are expected to properly prepare children for any track of education or training they take in the future.
The Patterson report places a lot of emphasis on the financing of primary schools and the differential in the funding received by private ones (prep schools) and those owned by the government, and between high and low-performing government schools. Maybe Ms Williams might also initiate a public discussion on that issue.