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Dumpling, dumpling, dumpling - Pt 2, Changing the Caribbean's education system

Published:Sunday | February 7, 2010 | 12:00 AM


My colleagues Peter Espeut, Howard Thompson, Michael Franklin and Cynthia Cooke have been contributing to the debate on the critique of the Caribbean Examination Council (CXC) exams by Education Minister Andrew Holness. I wish to start with the good news that we are very confident that we can achieve close to 100 per cent literacy by 2015.

We are working with the National Education Plan within the Vision 2030 National Development Plan and the Task Force Report on Educational Reform (2004) to inform the development of national strategic plans covering five-year cycles. These strategic plans include a range of short-, medium- and long-term strategies which are critical to achieving the 2015 literacy goal. Notwithstanding, achieving our literacy goal does not mean all students will achieve the same outcomes in exams like the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC). However, they would have achieved a minimum level of proficiency.

In fact, the task force report estimated that if we achieved a mean score of 85 per cent in the Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT), we could target 60 per cent of our high-school cohort gaining five or more CSEC subjects at grades one to three, including mathematics and English language. On average, 10 per cent of Caribbean students gain five or more subjects, including mathematics and English language. But if we could only achieve 60 per cent acceptable performance in CSEC, what would happen to the remaining 40 per cent?

misused grade profile

High-school students pay keen attention at a CSEC exam techniques seminar at the Girl Guides Association Headquarters on Waterloo Road, St Andrew, in March 2008. - Rudolph Brown/Chief Photographer

Cynthia Cooke argues that we have misused the CXC grade profile. Initially, there was no pass or fail in the CXC examinations, but profiles one to six, similar to the General Certificate Examination (GCE) 'A'-level system, where grades A-E are acceptable. Unfortunately, whereas the GCE system accepted grades A-E, CSEC accepted only grades one to two at first and now grades one to three. It is to resolve some of these concerns that the Caribbean Certification of Secondary Level Competence (CCSLC) was developed with the endorsement of the employers so that we could move away from the CXC basic proficiency.

But different jobs require different levels of certification (for example, a gas station attendant versus an executive secretary, doctor or CEO). The extension of the school-leaving age to 18 and the introduction of the Career Advancement Programme (CAP) is not a career postponement, as Peter Espeut suggests, but a step to get more students to be fully prepared for the workforce or for further studies.

If we are to follow Brother Espeut's suggestion, then he must tell us what these students who leave school at 14 and 16 are to do. We have pursued this model that has created an army of unattached youths and we add some 30,000 to the pool each year. This model has disenfranchised so many that it could be considered that we may have done a good job of it. Now is the time to fix it. We need to stop the flow now. We must fix the education system and how we measure its performance.

One thing we must do in short order is to ensure that we change GSAT from being primarily a placement exam to being effective preparation for high-school education. The Literacy Transition Policy is key in achieving this objective. We must also reduce the number of subjects to which we are exposing students in grades 10 and 11. The average number of subjects should be a core of five or six. This will allow more time to better prepare our students. Not all students can manage upwards of eight subjects at one time. To this end, the Ministry of Education is developing a core services policy. As I have often said, tertiary education has become student-centred through the introduction of the semester system; in the same way, we should provide more support for our students at the secondary level.

As my colleagues Cynthia Cooke and Howard Thompson alluded, we have to get our examination system right. It must be revised and made fit for the purpose. We must determine what is fit for further studies and what is fit for workforce needs. There is no point in graduating students at age 16 in the 21st century; instead, they should remain in school until age 18 and made fit for work or further studies. Jamaica needs graduates at all levels who have the right mix of knowledge, skills and attitude (KSAs). In addition, employers need workers who are flexible, creative and entrepreneurial. The smallness of our Caribbean economies means that we need to produce more creative graduates who can allow us to compete effectively in this global economy. Let's follow the models of Canada, Finland and other advanced countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in getting it right.

The 2009 results for CSEC examinations

The results of the 2009 CSEC examination indicate that some 80 per cent of the grade-two cohort in Jamaican public schools entered for this examination and only 46 per cent of the cohort entered for five or more subjects. Of the 32,568 students who sat the examination, 36 per cent (11,700) obtained grades one to three in five or more subjects. This would seem to indicate that approximately 11,700 students were eligible to pursue further education.

Performance in English A and mathematics in CSEC

Of the candidates from Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica and Guyana who wrote the mathematics examination in 2009, the percentage obtaining grades one to three were 48, 47, 36 and 31 per cent, respectively. They all had rates that were less than 50 per cent.

Performance in mathematics has been consistently below 50 per cent in the region. A total of 40,410 Jamaicans sat English A in June 2009 and 4,231 in January 2009. This means that others outside of the high-school cohort sat these exams which are consistent with our proposal to extend the opportunities through CAP to further improve student outcomes.

There have been many studies and reports (including by UNESCO) on how to transform the education system in Jamaica and provide quality education for all. Key to this transformation would be to invest in a national high-quality, early-childhood development programme. This will ensure that all students are given a good start to allow them to participate effectively and benefit from the education system.

This was partially achieved through the establishment of the Early Childhood Commission to "ensure a right start to a bright future". Good progress is being made here. We now need to add the National Parenting Support Commission to empower parents to participate effectively in the schooling of their children in order to give them a good start. The task force report stated that close to 30 per cent of our students may have serious learning problems and overall, 50 per cent may not be properly prepared for primary education. This is why we have to focus on a strong early-childhood system and ensure that there are mechanisms in place to assess the readiness of our students for schools, as well as the readiness of schools to support students' learning.

It is also important to establish targeted interventions to support students who display learning disabilities. We cannot achieve high educational outcomes if the cognitive and socio-emotional abilities of students are not effectively stimulated.

What we must never lose sight of, is the history and evolution of education systems around the world. We must never pretend that the Dark Ages did not exist when information was not as readily available as we have it now. There were no books as we have them now and certainly no Internet. Education was for the privileged few, government technocrats and the clergy. Since the world then was largely agrarian, there was no need for highly trained workers as the economies of the world relied on manual labour until the late 19th century. With the onset of the Industrial Revolution, there was greater need for technical and vocational education. United States, France and Japan led the way in developing high-level skills in manufacturing and, hence, the need for technical education. As the world became more industrialised, there was more need for engineers and higher-level technical and vocational education.

Traditionally in the Caribbean, children of the wealthy planters were sent to Britain, while the slaves were never sent to school - not even Sunday school initially. Governments around the world did not fund education in the early days. In the early 20th century, less than 30 per cent of the world's populations was literate.

We must give thanks to our missionaries who felt that ex-slaves and the masses, generally, should be given education and be exposed to moral teachings from the Bible. The Church - Moravians, Baptists, Anglicans and Catholics - led the way in establishing schools in Jamaica. This was the period of the three 'R's - reading, writing and 'rithmetic. There was no CXC at this time. All our external exams were done from London and Cambridge universities. For many years, there was no policy of universal education even at the elementary level.

debates on educational system

Even by the 1950s, there were debates in other societies on the system of education and the content to be tested and competencies to be certified. According to Bagnall (2000), the debate between vocational and general or liberal education is one of status. Bagnall argues that the UK universities were "classified into the three traditions of liberal education: the study of classics at Oxford, mathematics at Cambridge, and philosophy in the Scottish universities". These subjects were studied for their supposed capacities to train the mind and cultivate the intellect "rather than for the usefulness of their content".

I want to make the point that there is no standardised education system in the world. Countries have sought to improve on their education system to suit their needs and to enjoy international competitiveness. Australia, which was once a colony of Britain, started with the British-style education system but has evolved into a practical-type system to embrace a fusion between British general-type education and vocational education. France, on the other hand, is a highly diploma-oriented society. The central qualification at the secondary level is the baccalaureate, started by the famous Napoleon Bonaparte. They now have three types of high-school diplomas. Bac Professionnel, Bac Technologique and Bac Général.

The United States also has a high-school diploma system which goes up to grade 12. They also have the General Education Diploma (GED). Those who wish to pursue college/university education take the preparatory exam, the Scholastic Attitude Test (SAT), a clear distinction made from a general high-school certification from college-readiness certification. We have offered, over time, a range of certification inclusive of the Jamaica School Certificate (JSC), the Secondary School Certificate (SSC), the GCE, the CCSLC, the CSEC (Basic and General proficiency), the Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Examination, National the Vocational Qualification of Jamaica (NVQ-J), the Caribbean Vocational Qualification and other international vocational exams offered by the City and Guilds.

This is the issue we must resolve in using CSEC and CCSLC. Jamaica needs to follow suit. We have a vision for the country (Vision 2030). We now need to create an education system that will help us to achieve this vision.

Britain was very slow to change its education system and, although it led the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, it has been overtaken by the US, Japan, China, and now the rest of Asia. So I want to put on the table that we do not need to feel that the British education system is the most efficient in the world. As I said in Part 1 of this debate, this is the model we followed where we ranked out a few to go to sixth form and university and then the majority was to be left as unskilled labour. As a result, in the English-speaking Caribbean today, less than five per cent of our population has a university degree. The UWI has only graduated over 50,000 in just over 50 years. How could we possibly expect to have only one university? But the world has now changed and we all want our students to go to university.

universal access to tertiary education

We need, therefore, universal tertiary educational access across the British West Indies. To achieve this, we would have to change how we do things. In fact, even the UWI will now accept students with less than a full CAPE programme because of competition from four-year programmes from the University of Technology, Northern Caribbean University and other local and foreign colleges and universities. All around the world, when tertiary access expands, the entry requirement is lowered but not the standard of output, because the entry requirement was too high in the first place, due to restricted access such as having one university. In the USA, acceptable SAT scores range from 900 to 1520.

It is clear that all students are not equal in abilities and interest, and that society requires diverse skills and talents. As I said before, we must create the opportunities to maximise the potential of every student and provide him or her with different options or pathways to self-actualise. Yes, Brother Peter Espeut, the traditional sixth-form model will remain for now. But note that in most of the developed world, they have four-year college programmes and not three years as the UWI.

But as we offer the education dumpling, some will still need to eat the dumpling piece by piece, but let us inspire them to eat all of it.

Ruel Reid is chairman of the National Council on Education and principal of Jamaica College. Feedback may be sent to