THERE'S one popping up on every corner, much like the ubiquitous church or bar that landed Jamaica in the Guinness Book, there's a prep school for every pocket; for every social class; for every knowledge base; each one supposedly filling a gap left by the Government school system.
Parents pay as high as $150,000 per term at Hillel to get their kids out of the public system and into a private school flush with activities and one-on-one time and small class sizes and a little bit of prestige.
Those parents who choose prep schools claim to do so because they offer something different from the public school system.
Kingston mother of two and communications professional Klao Bell-Lewis said her family decided to go with a school which had values that were in keeping with theirs.
"Through meeting with the principal, and talking with parents and past employees of the school, we were convinced that the school was consistent in delivering values-based teaching that created confident leaders. And that's what we wanted for our children," she said.
"We remember cringing after meeting with the principal of a top prep school when we saw how focused she was on winning. We didn't need our children to be pressured and hammered about academic performance at the expense of other important characteristics. We also saw where some schools were all about gearing up for good GSAT grades. We chose a school that includes special needs children; and the option of sitting or not sitting GSAT; as they have a high school to which kids can matriculate seamlessly."
Caleb Brown, a Mandeville dad, said he enrolled his two daughters in a prep school in that parish, because he said that was where they would have the best opportunities.
"The older daughter was already far advanced for her age when she entered pre-school, so no way was I going to hold her back by enrolling her in a primary school," Brown, an architect said. "With prep school she gets individual attention, she gets to channel her creativity into any activity she wants, and she gets to be challenged by peers whose parents have the same goals for her that I do."
Karlene Bisnott, principal of Vaz Preparatory School in Kingston said the prep school positives are many.
"The smaller class size, let's begin there. Children get more individualised attention and you offer a host of extracurricular activities to provide a more-rounded individual. You offer the main core curriculum, but prep schools, based on their emphasis, would have additional subjects that are offered that would not be offered in the public schools as a part of the curriculum, like the languages," she said.
"We offer chess as a subject, for instance, while other schools will offer other things. And because of the nature of the schools, they have very strong intervention programmes where they pick up on problems children are having, because the class sizes are smaller. It also generates this type of family environment -- a very strong parent-school relationship is established."
The Ministry of Education acknowledges, in its independent schools government policy, the need for private schools. The Independent Schools Unit of the ministry said last April that there are nearly 500 registered independent institutions of various types, and that new applications are being received by the unit every day.
"The existence of private educational institutions reflect a demand for educational opportunities in excess of those which the public system can now provide," the independent schools policy, available on the ministry's website, said.
It also pointed to the establishment of an Independent Schools Section in the Educational Services Division of the ministry, which reports directly to the chief education officer. The division registers and monitors the operation of independent schools, ensuring that students attending these institutions "are exposed to quality teaching/learning experiences to enhance their development according to abilities and that adequate preparation is given to these students for the various national and overseas examinations".
The ministry monitors independent schools from pre-primary to vocational. But the ministry doesn't monitor fees, nor does it publish individual private school results so parents can view school performance.
It's this failure by the ministry, that has led some parents and educators to wonder if private schooling is indeed, an expensive gamble.
Why is there such a wide disparity in fees? Is something missing in the schools which charge less? Is there more on offer from the schools which charge more? Is it all a business?
"There are schools whose fees go up based solely on whether another prep school raises fees," said the principal of a St Andrew-based kindergarten which feeds most of its students into prep schools. The principal, who asked not to be named, fearing backlash from her peers, said most can afford to charge less but don't.
"Many have no teaching standards, no grade four (Grade Four Literacy/Numeracy Test) high marks or GSAT passes to claim glory — indeed many are glorified primary schools," she said.
She made reference to one particular Kingston school which had got "so high and mighty", doubling its fees based solely on one of its students getting a GSAT scholarship in the 2009 exams.
"That school has no tradition of excellence; no tradition of producing great students... but that one brilliant student gave it credibility, and now parents are clamouring to get in," the principal said.
But, she admitted, the schools can do it because there is demand.
"Government recognises the vital role that independent schools are playing but feels that some amount of control should be made to bear on these institutions," the independent schools policy reads. "The Government considers that it has a duty to ensure that these institutions are operated for the benefit and welfare of the pupils who attend them."
"But how do you choose a good school, really," asked Patrick Campbell, a dad to a six-year-old who is entering grade one in September. "Sure I understand that the Government cannot provide spaces for every Jamaican child, but why is the search for a good, affordable prep school so hard? Where are the statistics to help me?"
He said he wanted to go with a traditional prep, but was overwhelmed by the fees.
"No way can I afford that kind of investment. But traditional preps at least have a record of distinction, what can I say for the others?"
He said that he, a banker, and his wife, a nurse, took turns calling schools beginning in February, to get a feel for the figures and he was dumbstruck.
"First of all, I found out about schools I'd never even heard of before; then the disparity in fees was amazing; then one told me they would probably be raising fees in September so I should call back... and it was all so confusing."
Not only that, but he had no idea, save for visiting the schools and requesting results, how the schools were performing.
His next best bet was to dig for information on past GSAT scholarships published in the media and rely on word of mouth from other parents.
Ministry statistics show that only 84 per cent of prep school students achieved mastery in the Grade Four Literacy Test for 2010, down from the previous year's 93 per cent. So how do you know whether your school falls in the 84 per cent?
"Parents are left to guessing and hoping that their particular prep school won't fail them," Campbell said. "They're left to question which one is just in it to scrape through and make money, and which ones are actually performing."
So knowing that there's a demand by parents and a need from government, do some prep schools abuse the power and milk parents for fees? And with extra lessons and bake sales and seemingly endless contributions to the 'building fund', can prep school parents expect to always be paying through the teeth, even with no assurance that the investment will land their children in a coveted traditional high school spot?
Calvary Prep's Acting Principal Karen Dillworth showed that it's no money-making venture at her $20,000 per term school, which continues to place students in traditional high schools.
"It was founded by the church but I wouldn't say funded by the church...We depend heavily on school fees and contributions from parents," she said. "We offer all JCDC [activities], we are in music, speech, drama and dance...certainly we make it as affordable as possible, but we are not slackening on the quality. We even have situations where students leave so called big prep schools and come to Calvary."
Last year, the school had 140 students over eight classes — an average of just over 17 students per class.
Bisnott, who is also the former president of the Jamaica Independent Schools Association, said she doesn't know that schools which charge more are in the money-making business.
"I'm not sure that that is so in this economic climate. Right now, most of the schools are having financial challenges trying to keep the school doors open because the cost of everything has gone up and our main income is school fees which we can't push beyond what the parents are able to pay," said Bisnott.
"I don't think that (financial benefits) is the driving force these days but rather (persons are) looking for ways to help to arrest the problems that people are seeing out there in the public schools. We also have to be registered with the Independent Schools Unit of the ministry to make sure the facilities are up to standard."
Indeed, it's the government's policy to insist "on the maintenance of standards of education that are consistent with national requirements". The Independent Schools Regulations 1973 and the Education Act 1965 also give the minister of education the power, authority and responsibility to, among other things, evaluate the quality of the educational experiences being offered in independent schools and exercise control over the establishment and termination of such schools.
"All independent schools are required to use the national curriculum developed as the base of their programmes..." the policy said.
But how do parents choose when there seems to be a prep school on every corner?
Bell-Lewis said choosing a school does not have to be a gamble if you treat it as carefully as shopping for a house.
"My husband and I visited and met with principals of six schools; following hours of discussions with friends about their kids' schools; and consultation with contacts in government agencies about school performance," she said.
Another mother, an auditor who switched prep schools because she wasn't satisfied with her daughter's performance at her original choice, warned parents to be wary.
"Some of the cheaper prep schools don't offer a variety of extra-curricular activities," the auditor said. "Based on my audit experience, some teachers are well paid, others are paid based on the government salary scale. Some schools that are church based are subsidised by church and social events. Prices also are zoned; for example, those in Spanish Town stay within a range. They basically watch each other's prices."
She said qualification is also a factor: "The cheaper ones may employ trainees while others have college training."
Factors like those listed by the auditor are what concern many parents, and make others at least make a try to get into a good performing primary school
"I really wanted my children to go to a primary school because I had a grand plan for a big experiment," Bell-Lewis said. "I figured that for at least 25 per cent of the quarterly prep school fee, I could help transform whichever primary schools my kids attended by either fitting a white board in every class in which my kids were placed; paying for a teaching assistant; galvanising parents to construct additional classrooms or blocks; sponsoring a special education teacher to help and sponsoring a laptop and projector each year. By these initiatives, which would cost a fraction of the annual prep school fee, I hoped to leave the school a little better off when my children left."
But, she said, she was dissuaded.
"I was strongly discouraged by so many people from sending my kids to a primary school. The main reasons people spoke of were the coarseness and violence. Few people spoke of lower quality education, because the fact is, most Jamaicans are educated at primary schools and some of our best teachers are there. However, these great, committed men and women, simply do not have all the resources they need to be successful, and struggle to make the most of what they have. I tip my hat to them."
Added Joy DaCosta, a St Andrew mother of two: "No one wants to pay $60,000 per term for a child, but you have to, because of the problems in the government system. Do I want my son in a primary school with the 35:1 ratio? Can my slow learner survive in this environment? Or am I forced to sacrifice with the prep because I want a better future for him?"
"I am doing a diploma in early childhood education and at least six out of a class of 23 [in the primary system] do no work on a daily basis," the auditor revealed. "This is the government system!"
Prep school fees per term: highs and lows
Praise Tab Christian Academy - $34,000
Avondale Prep - $24,000
St Jago Cathedral Prep- $32,000
Mona Prep - $75,000
Vaz Prep - $60,000
Wolmer’s Prep - $65,000
St Andrew Prep - $62,500
Our Lady of the Angels Prep - $53,000
Calvary Prep - $20,000
Queens Prep - $65,000
Hydel Prep- $43,450
St Hugh's Prep - $67,000
Stella Maris Prep - $59,200
Hillel Prep- $150,000*
Morris Knibb Prep - $34,100
* Grade 1 fee. Tuition ranges up to $160,000 in Grade 6