Tue | Dec 5, 2023

‘Treadmill of failure’

Shackled by education regulations, struggling 12-y-o on conveyor belt to high school

Published:Sunday | September 24, 2023 | 12:10 AMMark Titus - Sunday Gleaner Writer
The boy, who was recently accepted at a preparatory school in western Jamaica, is struggling to keep up with his grade six colleagues, who are preparing for the final round of their PEP exams.
The boy, who was recently accepted at a preparatory school in western Jamaica, is struggling to keep up with his grade six colleagues, who are preparing for the final round of their PEP exams.

A 12-year-old with learning disabilities is being ushered through the primary school system on the insistence of the education ministry that he should graduate to the secondary level next year because of his age, despite his struggles to attain the standards of a third grader.

The boy, who was recently accepted at a preparatory school in western Jamaica, is struggling to keep up with his grade six colleagues, who are preparing for the final round of their Primary Exit Profile (PEP) exams.

“He is a new student and, for his age, is rightfully in grade six, but he is nowhere near the grade six level. He is closer to the grade three level,” said the student’s current headmaster, whose name is being withheld by The Sunday Gleaner to protect the child’s identity.

“We have reached out to the Ministry of Education in writing, but they are yet to respond in writing, but in telephone conversations, what we are being told is that he must leave the primary system next year,” the principal said. “My interest as an educator is to ensure that our students maximise their potential and leave our institution ready to take on their next level of learning. A situation like this is frustrating, but we just want to prepare this child in the best way possible, but he needs some time to develop.”

The Sunday Gleaner understands that the youngster previously attended a public school in a neighbouring parish, but was diagnosed with learning disabilities just before the COVID-19 pandemic. The psychoeducational assessment, which measures the basic academic functioning in word reading, sentence comprehension, spelling, and mathematics computation, found that at nine years old, he was performing below grade level in all areas.

The introduction of online classes during the pandemic further derailed his academic journey and he was absent from classes until the start of the current term, when an attempt was made to have him readmitted, but he was not accepted at the school.


Responding to questions from The Sunday Gleaner, the Ministry of Education and Youth said that keeping back students until they attain mastery at preset levels would not be in their best interest.

“Many times, they are teased and ridiculed, which creates other psychological issues which are debilitating and manifest in bullying, truancy, and other antisocial behaviour,” the ministry said.

It further contended that having a 12-year-old male student in a kindergarten class, for example, simply because the academic functioning level is comparable, would be inappropriate.

The ministry noted that students with special education needs and disabilities (SEND) should be educated in line with their needs and not solely as typically functioning students.

“This would require the need for a series of steps to be taken to adequately cater to the child’s particular educational needs,” it said.

An updated assessment is required to determine the 12-year-old’s current level of functioning. Until then, the child would need to remain in his current grade.


Former president of the Jamaica Independent Schools Association, Dr Faithlyn Wilson, says the ministry’s directive is in keeping with the education regulations.

“Based on my understanding of the education regulations, a 13-year-old should not be in primary school, so insisting that the 12-year-old graduate despite his level of mastery is actually in line with what the regulation stipulates,” she told The Sunday Gleaner.

“Now, my personal opinion is that the regulation should not trump common sense or good practice and, personally speaking, I think the children should be moved [up a grade level] based on mastery and not based on what the regulation says,” Wilson added. “So if the regulation says something different from the fact that children are promoted based on achievement of some mastery level, then the regulation needs to be fixed.”

Reverend Ronald Thwaites, a former education minister, said the situation is all too common.

“Such a student requires extensive remedial attention, certainly not promotion based on age,” the retired politician said. “The affected child is on a treadmill of failure unless there is urgent intervention.”

Psychologist Dr Patrece Charles-King noted that the parents also have a vital role to play.

“If the children are falling behind academically, parents can help by providing support at home,” she said. “I believe social skills died during the pandemic and this is where parents can become more involved with their children, especially their use of social media.”

She suggested that parents should encourage their children to participate in social activities at school and make themselves available to discuss social problems, some of which could be affecting their academic performance.


According to recent data, approximately 1,000 students have been diagnosed with learning disabilities across the island. However, there are approximately 2,500 students in segregated settings, including students with other special needs.

The Mico CARE Centre provides diagnostic assessments for close to 2,000 children each year and intervention services to about 380 of these students annually.

According to psychologist Shelleka Matthews, head of clinical services at the diagnostic facility, children who are performing below their grade level typically do not benefit from repeating a year. They need interventionists who will focus on remediating their missing skills.

“It is important to highlight the fact that children who have aged out of the primary school system without adequately meeting their educational goals also have access to remedial learning programmes at the secondary level through the ministry’s Alternative Pathways to Secondary Education Programme,” she told The Sunday Gleaner.


The education ministry admits that children entering secondary school should ideally be reading at a grade seven level or above and numerate at that grade level as well.

There are currently 43 segregated schools of special education, 16 special education units, and six resource rooms in the country. There are also 551 special education teachers with more than 100 at the high school level.

Wilson, the principal of El Instituto de Mandevilla in Manchester, said her school has several special needs students, while other private institutions are offering the full service.

“Based on the regulations that have him shackled, his parents need to find a special-ed school where he can continue his high school education under special circumstances,” she suggested.