Fri | Sep 22, 2023

Ronald Thwaites | Eradicating illiteracy in schools

Published:Monday | June 5, 2023 | 12:51 AM
In this 2020 photo, Dr Peter Phillips, former PNP president, speaks with a student sitting for primary exit examinations at Tarrant High School.
In this 2020 photo, Dr Peter Phillips, former PNP president, speaks with a student sitting for primary exit examinations at Tarrant High School.

Last Sunday at the Catholic Assembly, both Andrew Holness and Mark Golding expressed reverence and appreciation for the sturdy Christian values based education which they had received at St Catherine High and Campion College, respectively.

Both acknowledged the severe social and economic problems besetting the nation and called for intensified character formation in schools. The prime minister went further by inviting churches to increase their engagement by starting and operating more schools.

Both leaders freed themselves from the inbred limitations of the political culture to speak in one voice about arguably the most crucial weakness of the nation – that of educational underachievement.


You can say talk is cheap but both party leaders impressed the large audience as two thoughtful men dedicated to the common good. Why not take them at their word and hold them accountable for what they so convincingly say they believe? And why not insist that the obvious comity between the two men becomes standard behaviour, shifting us away from one- party hegemony and towards multi-party collaboration?

Archbishop Richards introduced the concept of “beneficial adversaries”. Neither Andrew nor Mark would have to agree on everything to be beneficial adversaries – sharing power, compromising differences, and jointly committing to the radical changes which are so pressing if we are ever to have peace and a modicum of prosperity.

The present system can’t take us where we need to go. It is premised on chronic inequality of opportunity. King Charles is the least of our problems.


Take education for example. Last week New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff continued his description of the revolution in literacy which has been taking place in the poorest American state, Mississippi. Until a few years ago, this state had the largest percentage of students leaving school illiterate. Most of them were black. Overall in the United States, one-third of children cannot read at the appropriate grade level or at all. Their illiteracy, especially in Mississippi, used to cascade into low math achievement, small numbers graduating, high levels of teen pregnancy, juvenile delinquency, seepage into gangs and massive incarceration.

Sounds like Jamaica, doesn’t it. We are about to “graduate” close to one half of school leavers, about 15,000 Jamaican youth, who at worst can’t read; at best having not achieved matriculate standards.

In Mississippi they have introduced an all-out effort for students to read by the end of third grade. Operating largely within existing budgets, state school authorities have concentrated on teacher retraining and parental sensitization from the pre-primary levels through to grade three.

Existing class size has been maintained with coaches placed wherever needed. Phonics, a largely undervalued element of the science of reading, is emphasized with impressive early success. Mississippi is steadily climbing up the chart of acceptable educational and social outcomes: so much so that their emphasis and changed methodology is being copied in other states – even the relatively advanced New York state.


A critical feature of their programme is that when a child is not reading fluently in third grade, remedial attention is immediately applied. And if there is still no improvement, the student is not promoted but must repeat the grade and given appropriate help until the required standard is met. No exceptions.

Interestingly, the teachers union has become an enthusiastic supporter of this literacy project, understanding, as should be obvious, that the ability to read, guarantees better behaviour, the capacity to perform at higher levels and less frustration and stress for teachers.


I have urged both national leaders to investigate this model with a view to implement a similar program starting this September. Three generations ago, Jamaican primary schools emphasised phonics. They stopped. Why, and with what better result?

Now, please don’t tell me we are tackling literacy adequately already. We just are not. And please let us not continue our longstanding habit of finding a problem for every solution. Illiteracy and inadequate comprehension are crippling this nation, limiting economic growth and disappointing countless lives while wasting billions in wrongly-spent money.

If we have splurged all the available education dollars on salaries and perks, ask Ambassador Perry to sponsor a delegation to Mississippi this summer to observe and report on literacy in their schools.


Then there was the acknowledgement last week by Mr Myrie of Kingston College, supported by Mr Wright of William Knibb, speaking for all high school principals, that extracurricular activities will have to be curtailed because funds from government are grossly insufficient and are seldom available on time. So far there has been no response from those who recently gave themselves the 200% raise of pay and who still promote the lie that parental contributions are not essential to quality educational opportunities.

The situation is of course much worse in the primary schools. Let us wait and see what Mrs Williams means by suggesting recently that government should support schools “according to need”. There is not a school, public or private, which is not either operating in deficit or on the thinnest of resources. Don’t the results show?

Relying on what the political leaders said last Sunday, churches and civil society must insist on a joint approach to education transformation. There is no room for delay or division. The new Education Code must extend, not contract the authority of boards of denominational schools in exchange for high academic and behavioural targets to be agreed and achieved. The Ministry of Education cannot claim that effective transformation is under way or that the Patterson Report is being implemented while the scourges of illiteracy and intentional underfunding are not addressed.


Good sense has prevailed in the confirmation of Professor Densil Williams to head the Mona Campus of the UWI. He is nobody’s satrap and I believe he has the courage and acumen to inspire the nation to support this institution out of its money worries and all that flows from bruk-pocket.

Respectful obituaries are in order for Sister Maureen Clare Hall OSF, Dr Moses Peart and Dr Simon Clarke – all pillars of good education. All three could have enriched themselves materially in many different professions anywhere in the world. Instead, they chose lives of service here, equipping and enabling countless thousands. Wherever they worked they broke the mould of complacent mediocrity.

Sister Maureen Clare led Immaculate Conception High School to the pinnacle of success. Dr Moses Peart contributed mightily to technical and vocational education at UWI and the HEART Trust. Simon Clarke’s work at Green Island Secondary, at Sam Sharp Teachers’ College and with several education-related international organisations, is all the stuff of legend and good purpose. He was the smoothest and most suave of the Public Eye hosts in years past.

May their example of brilliance, self-sacrifice and nationalist zeal be emulated.

Rev Ronald G. Thwaites is an attorney-at-law. He is former member of parliament for Kingston Central and was the minister of education. He is the principal of St Michael’s College at the UWI. Send feedback to