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Sunday, January 22, 2006 

Education for underdevelopment

published: Sunday January 22, 2006

Peter Espeut, Contributor

I LISTENED with interest to a recent discussion on the Breakfast Club about the future of education in Jamaica, about what could be done to improve it. What was interesting was the lack of ideas on what to do. They were agreed that more money (investment) was needed in the sector, but were not very clear on what to spend it on.

"We need more schools" was the cry; and indeed we do. We do not have enough schools to accommodate all Jamaican children, especially at the secondary level.

But let us not deceive ourselves. The primary schools we have now are producing illiterates such that the Government's current White Paper on education sets a five-year target of 60 per cent of grade six children being able to read at grade six level - which means that even now, the figure is much less than that. Decidedly, what we do not need is more schools like that!


The context, of course, is national development. Possibly, we now agree that it was a terribly wrong move for all the governments since 1944 to have so effectively ensured the availability of an unskilled agricultural labour force by providing low-quality primary education and by restricting the secondary franchise.

In my view, it is this decision by both the People's National Party (PNP) and the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) to continue the dependence on sugar and bananas by keeping the majority of Jamaicans good for little else other than unskilled praedial labour, that has held back the economic development of this country. Both the JLP and PNP have stuck to the agenda of the colonial plantocracy. I can't believe that in the 21st century we are still calling mayors "Your Worship"! Are we supposed to worship them? And as for calling Prime Ministers "Most Honourable"!

I have to repeat the figures for those who may have missed them. At Independence we had 41 high schools and eight senior schools - precursors of junior secondary schools and new secondary schools. To get into a high school you had to pass the Common Entrance Examination (CEE), for which there is no pass mark: the number of high school places determines the number who 'pass'. If you build more high school places, then more Jamaican children can 'pass' for high school.

After 15 years of Independence (in 1977), and a series of JLP and PNP governments, we had 44 high schools and 71 new secondary schools. To get into a new secondary school you have to fail the CEE). In other words, the series of JLP and PNP governments did not want more Jamaican children to 'pass' the CEE; if they did, they would have built more high schools and less new secondary schools.


The fact that they built more schools for children to have to fail the CEE to enter, means that they wanted more children to fail the exam than pass it! This is what I mean when I say that both the PNP and JLP have made sure that the agricultural sector will always have enough unskilled labour.

Just to put some figures to it: in 1977, there were 50,274 children in grade six in primary, all-age and independent schools eligible to take the CEE; 32,485 took the exam (so 17,789 did not even get a chance to fail) and only 4,777 'passed' because there were only that number of high school places. There was simply no room in high school that year for 45,497 Jamaican children.

Other countries don't have an exam like this because they make sure that there are enough grade seven high school places to accommodate all their grade six primary students.

Imagine if since 1962 we had put all our primary students into high school instead of letting them languish in all-age schools, junior high schools and secondary schools? Many of those children would now be entrepreneurs, operating businesses, employing people, making money for themselves and for Jamaica.

In fact, there probably would be a shortage of labour, and we would have to employ immigrant labour from poorer countries - like The Bahamas, Bermuda, The Cayman Islands and the British Virgin Islands, have to do.

Possibly we now agree that it was a terribly wrong move for all the governments since 1944 to have so effectively ensured the availability of an unskilled agricultural labour force by providing low-quality primary education and restricting the secondary franchise. Things are not much better today; we now have about 12,000 children each year passing the renamed CEE to get into high school.

There is only so much that can be said in a short column about solutions, but let me ask: When are we going to break out of this colonial/agricultural mode? A focus on basic schools is good, but unless there is also an emphasis on high school education, we will forever remain an underdeveloped country.

Peter Espeut is a sociologist and is executive director of an environment and development NGO.

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