Educator reflects on 57 years of growth in education
Jamaica has seen improvements in all levels of the education system – early childhood to tertiary – since Independence in 1962, but there is still some way to go, says veteran educator James Walsh.
“We’ve come quite far ... . To my mind, there have been far more positives than negatives,” he told The Gleaner as he assessed the sector.
Walsh, who spent 39 years at Brown’s Town Community College – 17 of them as principal – pointed to the tertiary sector as making the greatest gains over the last 57 years.
“The tertiary sector has expanded substantially since Independence, when you had Mico and the other teachers’ colleges and UWI (The University of the West Indies) and UTech (University of Technology). All of those have expanded, turned into degree-granting [institutions]. We had the community college sector introduced, a number of new colleges, and so on. The tertiary sector has really, to my mind, shown the greatest expansion from maybe under two per cent of the population, which is the cohort getting tertiary education, to now, it’s more than 15 per cent,” the former principal reflected.
Also dating back to the pre-Independence period is West Indies College, which was granted university status in 1999 and the name changed to Northern Caribbean University.
Later came a boom in the establishment of community colleges, many of which now offer bachelor’s degree programmes. A number of other universities and colleges have also emerged on the local scene, including the University of the Commonwealth Caribbean (UCC).
UTech, established in 1958 as the College of Arts, Science and Technology (CAST), was accorded university status in 1995 and the name changed to reflect this.
Examining the growth of UTech, it shows that there were fewer than 10 programmes and just a few dozen students at Independence. Today, the institution offers more than 100 programmes and has an enrolment of more than 12,000 students.
“So there is quite a big tertiary sector now,” said Walsh, who now lectures part-time at the UCC.
The secondary level has also seen upward movements. An explosion of secondary education institutions in the 1970s meant that a lot more Jamaicans were able to gain access to take up studies beyond the primary level.
Grammar-type high schools – the first type of secondary institutions introduced to Jamaica by the British and remained the only type close to a century – were soon joined by technical high, comprehensive high, vocational high and the new secondary-school systems.
Prior to Independence, fewer than 10,000 students were enrolled in 30 traditional high schools across the island. Within two decades of Independence, the number of schools had increased to 45, while enrolment jumped to more than 50,000.
In a paper published some years ago, former UTech president, Professor Errol Morrison, posited that the establishment of 66 junior secondary schools constituted the largest single investment in education in the post-Independence period. The curriculum at these schools was later upgraded from three to five years and the institutions renamed secondary schools, providing space for more than 80,000 additional students at that level.
But there is a fundamental problem at this level that needs to be addressed, Walsh believes.
“Dr Peter Phillips has put his finger on it, and I notice that not that many people have taken him up on it and that is to solve what is called the apartheid in the secondary system, where you have 150-odd secondary high schools and 45 of them are traditional and they basically have between 75 per cent and 100 per cent of their grade 11 cohorts getting five or more subjects, qualifying to go to university, and then the rest of the schools, the other 100 and odd schools, range somewhere below 75 per cent down to like zero per cent.
“So the bulk of the students are going to school, a minority of them are going to reach enough subjects to qualify for tertiary. So it’s to homogenise the quality, that is the major challenge we face.”
Walsh said the idea is to have a uniform quality secondary system that is capable of producing, so that everybody who goes there has a chance to get the five subjects, minimum.
“It’s easy to talk but not easy to do, but it can be done,” he acknowledged. “But there is really a chasm between traditional high and the non-traditional, which has to be addressed in an aggressive way, not just happen over time by little increments. It has to be seen for the things it is and dealt with.”
But the secondary education system is not the only one in need of an overhaul, Walsh believes.
“Of course, we have to do something like that at the primary level, too,” he added. “Of course, there are other issues, like trying to develop critical thinking, which is being addressed to some extent by PEP (Primary Exit Profile exams).”
PEP, the high-school placement examination introduced this year to replace the two-decades-old Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT), caused much anxiety in the sector over the last school year. GSAT had replaced the British-implemented Common Entrance Examination, which predated Independence, being first held in 1958.
While the introduction of Common Entrance to allocate spaces in high schools provided more access to secondary education for Jamaica’s schoolchildren, GSAT was viewed as a major revamping and a fillip to the sector. It was part of a programme with several other components, such as the Grade Three Diagnostic Test and the Grade Four Literacy and Numeracy Test. The change meant that students could now be effectively monitored and assessed at several levels and interventions take place where necessary.
PEP is said to provide a better and more complete profile of students’ critical-thinking ability at the primary level.
Despite the length of time it took to replace the Common Entrance – 40 years – and GSAT – 20 years – the introduction of PEP, despite its rocky start, indicates that the education system at the primary level continues to evolve.