EDITORIAL - Is GSAT really the problem?
Maybe the Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT) is a problem. But it is not THE problem.
That is why we consider so much of the annual ritual of public angst over the exam - including its characterisation by Ronnie Thwaites, the education minister, as the "apartheid of the education system" - as missing the real point.
It is in keeping with the Jamaican penchant for attacking symptoms and leaving the underlying problem unresolved, or, at best, only partially cured.
A decade and a half ago, the national preoccupation was with the Common Entrance, or 'Eleven Plus', exam. Nearly 50,000 children sat the exam, for perhaps 11,000 to be streamed into a handful of traditional high schools.
As with what now takes place in preparation for GSAT, parents invested in private, extra lessons for their children. The late Mr George Abrahams, for instance, had legendary status for preparing children for Common Entrance. The children who didn't get the grades for streaming into the top high schools were sent to all-age, technical, and junior high schools, and others of varying nomenclature that jostled in the secondary system.
The Common Entrance system was deemed elitist. Further, it placed too a greater a burden on 11- and 12-year-olds, whose educational and, even social futures, were being determined by a single test.
That was the backdrop against which reform was contemplated and GSAT established. Children would be continuously monitored and tested throughout their primary-school careers and then streamed, after grade six, into the secondary system. That, at least, was the idea.
But, as is so often the case when the Government runs things, they don't go right, or near to plan. In the case of GSAT, an essential accompanying component is high-school places.
What the administration of the 1990s, formed by Mr Thwaites' party, did, essentially, was to pull down, or mark out, the old shingles of all-age, junior high schools and the rest, and rename them high schools. They were declared upgraded. There was no rigorous engagement that led to upgrading in actuality.
Some of these schools have, in fact, improved. But too few. Most have failed to win the confidence of the public.
It is this lack of confidence that is reflected in the continued scramble by parents and children for places in the traditional high schools. Indeed, the competition becomes more strident as the test scores from GSAT improve, as Mr Thwaites reported they did this year.
Two other factors affect the system. One is the disparity between the quality of the preparation of primary-level children who attend government schools, and the readiness of those who go to private preparatory institutions. This tells in their GSAT grades. Then there is the weak, limping, mostly community-based and managed early-childhood system, to which our governments have paid insufficient attention.
Mr Thwaites, rightly, is focused on improving the quality of the so-called basic schools. An improved early-childhood foundation would drive up the quality at the primary level, leading to better test scores at GSAT, or whatever might replace it.
Without vastly more and better-quality high-school places, the scramble will continue for the too few good ones. Nothing will have changed.
Ronnie Thwaites, therefore, needs a policy for improving quality at the secondary system and for holding its leaders accountable.
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