Education then and now
Esther Tyson, Contributor
As a nation, Jamaica has come a long way from where we started with our education system in 1962. Then, the norm was that children would be sent to infant school and then to primary school. Many children did not go to school on Fridays because they stayed home to help their parents or went to the fields to help. Some parents felt that Friday was a play day.
Furthermore, not many children went to high school, because you had to pass the Common Entrance to go to high school, and if you did not get a scholarship through the Common Entrance, your parents had to pay fees. However, not many persons could afford the fees.
The idea of a teenager moving on to tertiary education was even more unthinkable for the average Jamaican in 1962. Then, there was only one local university, and teachers' colleges. Some persons were able to send girls to England to do nursing, but only the fortunate few. Tertiary education was perceived as being for the elite, not ordinary Jamaicans.
Based on this overview, one would get the impression that our educational system has made great strides in the last few decades. Indeed, we have come a long way, but there is much room for improvement. While we have increased access to education, we still need to improve the quality of education being offered.
DEMANDS OF EDUCATION
The demands of education, both globally and nationally, are now quite different from what they were in 1962. Then, our people felt that completing secondary education was a great milestone. Now it is seen as just a stepping stone to higher education of one form or another. Then, if you completed secondary education, it was possible to find a job in the commercial sector or the civil service. Now, most entry-level jobs in banking and the civil service, for example, require a first degree.
Then, if you passed five GCE O'Level subjects, you would be able to enter sixth form in a traditional high school; now, the demands are for eight or more CXCs with grade one. Then, you had more than one opportunity to take the Common Entrance Examination; now, you take the GSAT once.
Then, not many Jamaicans were leaving to pursue tertiary education in the United States and other foreign countries; now, it has become commonplace. In other words, the stakes have got higher. We now compete not only with ourselves but with the world. We need to be aware of what the demands are in the marketplace globally and what the acceptable standards of education are at each level.
The poor results of our secondary education system need to not only be discussed, but also addressed. First of all, we need to realise that grammar-school education is not sufficient to prepare our students for the 21st-century, knowledge-based economy. Students need to be leaving the secondary level with their cognitive skills developed; their ability to manage conflict intact; their capacity for teamwork, well-practised; their ability to research and access information fully engaged; their understanding of the demands of multiculturalism aroused; and full competence in the use of information technology.
There are various ways through which this can be accomplished, not only through a grammar school education. With the many advances being made in technology, it has become even more important to equip our students with a skills-based education. Have we realised that students who leave with skills are the ones most likely to be employed, compared to students who are studying the grammar subjects?
Therefore, using the results of just the CXC examinations is not enough to determine if the students are ready to go out to the world of work or further education. There are other assessment programmes being used in schools.
To be fair then, we should be assessing our schools on what is being done through skills-based educational assessment tools, such as The City of Guilds and HEART examinations.
Furthermore, right across the board, our students need to be taught how to be courteous and civil and to develop positive work ethics. The lack of positive work ethics and courtesy in our nation has now become an economic block. Companies are choosing to go to other countries with their businesses because we have become infamous for our rude behaviour and poor work ethics.
This does not rule out, however, the issue of accountability, which is sadly lacking in many of our schools. Parliament needs to fast-track the legislation to allow for accountability structures to be put in place in schools. The Jamaica Teaching Council, which has, on paper, the remit to oversee registration and training of teachers, is well past due.
The establishment of The Leadership College, which has been touted for so long to train principals and senior management of schools, is going at an alarmingly slow pace. The much-proclaimed plan to decentralise the operations of the Ministry of Education into regional bodies that will give specialised support to schools and that will be manned by educators who are skilled in their particular fields has all but been forgotten. We cannot afford to have another generation fall through the large cracks in this system.
I am sure that we are aware of examples of countries such as Singapore that are way ahead of us economically, even though they have fewer natural resources. Singapore's economy is a knowledge-based one. How did they move ahead of us? By taking the challenges they faced with their education system seriously. They looked at it, assessed it and fixed it. Now they are reaping the benefits of making hard decisions.
When are we going to have leaders of government who are bold enough to realise that using short-term programmes to patch our educational system will not fulfil Vision 2030?