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Creating a quality education system that will equip Jamaicans with the skills and abilities to drive development and effectively compete in a community, has been a major focus of successive governments since Independence.

Once a privilege for a select few, education has now become the right of every Jamaican, from every social, economic and ethnic background, at all levels of the system.

Over the last 50 years, there have been major policy initiatives and significant investments to improve infrastructure, access, and outcomes, and provide the highest quality training for all citizens.

Education Minister, Rev. the Hon. Ronald Thwaites, says that even with the large portion of the budget that goes into debt repayment, “education is the thing we put our money into”.

He states that with the “tremendous” investments that have been made, “we have almost universal access now at the early childhood level, certainly at the primary level, almost 100 per cent at the secondary level, almost drawing close to 30 per cent to the appropriate cohort in the tertiary education system. This places us in an extraordinarily strong position if we use these advantages correctly."

Director of the School of Education at the University of the West Indies, Mona, Professor Zelene Jennings-Craig, tells JS News that not only did the country achieve universal primary education by the late 1960’s, but there has been an attempt to improve the quality of education as well.

"One area was in the development of literacy and the type of reading materials that were used. For example, we developed reading materials that were based on the language situation in Jamaica,” she says.

Educational Consultant and former Chief Education Officer, Wesley Barrett, agrees that much progress has been made in the education system since Independence, noting that over time, “there are some very notable achievements” including the development of the Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT) which replaced the Common Entrance Examination (CEE).

He says the development of GSAT is significant, as it is geared towards determining the outcome of primary education. He explains that while the  CEE was used mainly for the selection of students for secondary school, GSAT is a better tool to evaluate the performance of students at the end of grade six, “since it took into account most of the curriculum in the very critical areas; the core areas."

"Some countries are just now attempting that, but we achieved that several years ago,” he boasts.

At the secondary level, Mr. Barrett says a major advancement since Independence was the significant expansion of schools, which involved building new institutions and expanding existing ones.

"I would say that enrolment has tripled or quadrupled over the period …I think that the 1966 new deal in education, where some 50 junior secondary schools were built, marked the first significant expansion in secondary education.  Then in 1974, when those junior secondary schools were extended… two years were added to the junior secondary programme so students entering the secondary cycle of education…would have at least five years of secondary education. I think that was very noteworthy because most countries around the world, many countries did not achieve that expansion,” he says.

With the building and expansion of schools and increase in enrolment, various curricula were developed to cater to the different needs of the country’s youth with an emphasis on technical and vocational education.

"In the colonial era, we only had grammar-type high schools but by the 1970’s we had different types of schools technical high, vocational high, traditional high and the new secondaries,” Professor Jennings-Craig points out.

Also at the secondary level, Mr. Barrett said Jamaica played a very significant role in developing the Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC) external examinations in the 1970’s, which complemented and in some instances, replaced the London-based General Certificate of Education (GCE).

“And, of course, these (exams) are found to be more relevant and appropriate in terms of our own education system. I would regard that as a milestone in the education system in Jamaica – the transition from British exams to our regional exams. And of course, the teachers of Jamaica and many in the education system played a very critical role in developing that particular exam,” he says.

Professor Jennings-Craig notes that this regional exam also enabled the curricula of secondary schools to become less Eurocentric “because with the dawn of Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate(CSEC) came almost an explosion in the writing of textbooks with a focus on the Caribbean and that has been available to all secondary schools."

Turning to the tertiary level, Mr. Barrett says it is notable that at least three indigenous degree-granting institutions have been established since Independence. These are: University of Technology (UTech), Northern Caribbean University (NCU), and Mico University College. “By statute, they can offer degrees and that is a significant development in the education system and all that has taken place since Independence,” he says.

Mr. Barrett further notes that Jamaica has produced a number of professors for universities, both locally and internationally, which proves the quality of the education system. He says it is commendable that these significant advancements have been made in education despite the fact that there are still challenges.

He notes that a major issue confronting the sector is the matter of having equity in access to greater quality education, which he insists, needs to be addressed if the country is to achieve the goals of Vision 2030 Jamaica, which aim to make the country “the place of choice to live, work, raise families, and do business”.

“We have quality in the system, but it is not widespread enough, and we will have to work on that. We have to ensure that more of our students succeed in school and that they achieve a high standard of attainment. I see us having to invest much more in e-learning and distance education…of course we have to do that through achieving higher levels of literacy,” he says.

Under Vision 2030, it is anticipated that by 2030, more than 98 per cent of the population, who are 15 years and older, will be fully literate.

According to the Education Sector Plan within the Vision 2030 document, it is envisaged that the country will develop an education and training system that produces well-rounded and qualified people, who are able to function as creative and productive individuals in all spheres of the society and be competitive in a global context.

The sector plan further anticipates that the average beneficiary of the education and training system would have completed the secondary level of education, acquired a vocational skill, be proficient in the English Language, a foreign language, Mathematics, a science subject, Information Communication Technology (ICT), participated in sports and the arts, be aware and proud of the local culture and possess excellent interpersonal skills and workplace attitudes.

Mr. Barrett says that another key issue to be addressed is the matter of diagnostic assessment, to identify and address learning difficulties. “I think we are very short of instruments to diagnose learning difficulties and for the next few years, we will have to spend much more on diagnostic assessment,” he states.

He says the culture of lifelong learning will also need to be developed for education stakeholders can keep abreast of new developments, while also recommending the twinning of schools with institutions in other countries.  “I see much more of that where …learning classrooms are thousands of miles (apart),” he says, noting that the developments in ICT have made this possible.

Other major achievements in the education sector since Independence, include: the development of standards to guide the delivery of early childhood education, including the establishment of the Early Childhood Commission (EEC); national standardised textbooks and workbooks, provided free of cost at the primary level; a highly subsidised and accessible book rental scheme at the secondary level; and a highly subsidised lunch programme.

There is also a standardised national primary curriculum; the heightening of participation by civil society in the education process, resulting in additional funds being provided for the system; a revolving loan scheme for professional development of teachers; and development and implementation of a series of educational policies including an ICT policy for Education, a Language Education Policy, Mathematics and Numeracy Policy, National Policy for HIV/AIDS Management in Schools, and a Special Education Policy.

With the strides made in education, Jamaica has become a shining example for other Caribbean islands to emulate. “I detect that in the rest of the Caribbean they like to know what’s happening in Jamaica because they have a great amount of respect for the work that we do in our education system and the quality that we produce,” Professor Jennings-Craig said.