GSAT preference and placement: Are all schools equal? (Pt 1)
Verona Antoine-Smith, Guest Columnist
'A city set on a hill cannot be hid' aptly summarises the views of Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT) parents that some secondary schools are clearly better than others. Whether real or perceived, they believe that the educational experience in the traditional institutions is more rewarding than in their non-traditional counterparts (JSLC, 2010), but the Ministry of Education (MOE) suggests otherwise. It asserts that all secondary schools are equal, intended to mean equal opportunities for students, comparable resources and hence the potential for similar outcomes in performance.
Last September, more than 40,000 students registered to sit GSAT, the MOE's main instrument for placing students at the secondary level. Each student selected five preferred schools of placement. But besides high academic standards being the primary justification for school selection, there are other factors that attract parents and shape their perception of schools.
A common medium through which parents eyeball their preferred schools is interschool competitions. When students represent their schools in these competitions, they advertise their school brand. Many parents who have no formal access to the academic performances of secondary schools en bloc actually base their evaluations on these exhibitions, aided by hearsay.
A review of three interschool competitions suggested that there is a relationship between schools that excel in these activities and the preferred schools of choice for GSAT students:
'Knowledge, skill, and discipline' are three basic requirements for success in any venture. TVJ's 'Schools' Challenge Quiz' tests intellectual fortitude. It demands focus, speed, knowledge and application. Since its 1969 debut, the dominant players continue to be the traditional high schools. The inaugural champions were St Hugh's, who won twice, and coincidentally 45 years later, it's their brother school and 11-time winners, Kingston College, that claimed the title for 2014. Ardenne, Calabar, Munro College and Wolmer's Boys each have five victories, with St Jago and Glenmuir winning four and three times, respectively. The National Inter-Secondary Schools' Debate also hinges on the intellectual skills and has also been dominated by the traditional schools. This year's victors are also Kingston College.
'Excellence through hard work and determination' is the hallmark of participants in the National Festival of the Performing Arts Competition. Hosted annually, since 1994 by the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission, this competition provides the opportunity for students to showcase their creativity in any of five categories: dance, music, drama, speech, and traditional folk forms. The recipient of the prestigious Marcus Garvey Awards for Excellence is the participant that wins at least three categories. St Jago High has won at least 11 times. However, non-traditional high schools, including Ascot, Tivoli, Eltham and Papine, are among the multiple-time winners of specific categories.
'Success nothing less' epitomises the highly anticipated ISSA Boys and Girls Athletic Championships (1910 and 1957, respectively). Each year, competitors and spectators alike attest to the truthfulness of the saying, 'Only the best is good enough'. It is one of the most widely viewed and sponsored interschool competitions. For the girls, the dominant schools represent both traditional and non-traditional institutions. Vere and Holmwood Technical have won the championships 22 and 10 times, respectively. All other victors, the majority being traditional schools, have won fewer than five times. The deserving 2014 champions, Edwin Allen, are a non-traditional high school, winning for the second time to date.
For the boys, Champs is a nail-biting experience. There are about five schools that are closely eyed by both supporters and non-supporters. They include 31-time champions Kingston College; followed by the indisputable 2014 champions Calabar, with 24 victories; and Jamaica College with 21. Wolmer's and Munro College have 12 and eight victories, respectively. All other victors, all traditional high schools, have fewer than four victories. In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of non-traditional schools participating in these competitions. Sadly, the main factor that continues to militate against their entry is the lack of the requisite resources.
Facilities and Instructional Resources
A walk through selected secondary schools will illustrate the contrasting physical resources. The average traditional high school is sufficiently equipped with the requisite facilities. They have laboratories and designated rooms for vocational subjects. There are a few with expansive halls from which additional income can be generated. In one prominent St Andrew-based high school for girls, there are nine science laboratories in contrast to an equally populated non-traditional school where there is only one. Although MOE data indicated that there is no disparity in the qualification and deployment of teachers across secondary school types, these students who are expected to sit the same CSEC exams cannot possibly receive similar levels of preparation.
Probing GSAT parents don't need to audit school accounts to discern their financial standing because money speaks volumes, although in some schools, it is mum. The primary responsibility for funding schools rests with the MOE. However, in keeping with its assertion that all schools are equal, it continues to fund each school accordingly. Funding is done on a per-capita basis, with the total subvention per school being the product of the per-capita cost and the number of students enrolled. Contributions from auxiliary fees, PTA and past student associations are other sources.
Unfortunately, non-traditional high schools suffer a low degree of compliance from their parents. The fact is, traditional high schools have a greater pool of resources at their disposal. In his 2012 presentation, Dr Disraeli Hutton of the University of the West Indies suggested that on average, the funds sourced by traditional schools exceeded the MOE's contribution by 50-100 per cent in contrast to some 20 per cent that their non-traditional counterparts could source.
Obviously, schools require far more than what the MOE provides to operate efficiently but the income gap in these schools is so grave, it creates a ripple effect on their financial management, thereby festering the aforementioned disparities and poisoning parents' perception.