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EDITORIAL - Getting education right early

Published:Tuesday | March 13, 2012 | 12:00 AM

DATA PUBLISHED by this newspaper on Sunday served to further highlight the crisis in Jamaica's education system and the urgency with which Ronald Thwaites, the education minister, must act.

Last December, 20,235 did the supplemental grade-four exams to test their literacy. Fifty-five per cent failed. Worse, 37 per cent (7,471) of the children were doing the test for the fourth time.

Of the four-time resitters, only 42 per cent mastered the literacy inventory. That is, they scored at least 50 per cent in the three components of the test.

Notably, the performance in the resit was significantly worse than in the regular exam for 2011 when 71 per cent of 56,000 nine-year-olds mastered the literacy inventory. This was a three percentage point improvement on the previous year.

For the supplemental examinations, almost all the students were from government-run primary schools and were in remedial programmes. They will now be channelled, according to Grace McLean, the permanent secretary in the education ministry, to a programme called ASTEP, designed for children who have learning/behavioural challenges.

The real problem

This newspaper does not challenge Ms McLean's interprepration of the outcome, and, perhaps, other data, "that at least 28 per cent of our students are suffering from some form of severe to mild learning disability". Neither would we challenge the interventions so far fashioned by the ministry to deal with this clear crisis.

However, a significant portion of disability affecting students, we suspect, could be a lack of early preparation for learning and a failure of leadership in some schools.

While we recognise that resource constraints are a real problem in public schools, we are reminded of, for instance, the performances of the Kensington (Greater Portmore) and Half-Way Tree primary schools in the 2011 Grade Four Numeracy Test. While nationally only 49 per cent of students mastered the numeracy components, pass rate for these schools were, respectively, 91 per cent and 83 per cent. This was better than the 79 per cent for private preparatory schools.

Leadership matters

What is different between other government-run primary schools and these two is the quality of their leadership; they believe that they can, and should deliver world-class education. The principals are willing to hold themselves and their teachers accountable and expect quality performance from their students.

That must be Mr Thwaites' starting point. Even as he empathises with the problems faced by too many schools, he should insist that schools deemed to be failing and should not engage in the occasional cry-ins. Principals must be held accountable for the performance of their schools.

Secondly, we agree with Mr Thwaites' intention to place emphasis on early-childhood education "so that we stop wasting billions on remedial education".

At present, the Government spends a mere three per cent ($2.16 billion) of its education budget on early-childhood education, delivered primarily by nearly 3,000 community schools, with mostly untrained teachers. Finding the $7 billion required to upgrade the system can't be beyond Jamaica, even if some budget rebalancing is necessary.

For, as Mr Thwaites has said, "we must do it right the first time".

The opinions on this page, except for the above, do not necessarily reflect the views of The Gleaner. To respond to a Gleaner editorial, email us: or fax: 922-6223. Responses should be no longer than 400 words. Not all responses will be published.