The People's National Party (PNP) government has chosen the right man, Mr Ronald Thwaites, for minister of education, though it is doubtful that the government and country will give him what he needs to do the job.
We must commend Mr Thwaites for understanding the educational needs of Jamaica and for his approach to meeting those needs, especially his insistence that Jamaica gives greater attention and money to educating the youngest children in school, in what he calls early childhood education.
But he must accept and observe certain truths about education — truths that are universal and others that are unique to Jamaica, if he is to succeed in his job.
The first one is self-evident: not all children can learn everything they are taught or learn everything to the same degree other children can; or learn in the same manner. This truth is contrary to the politically correct notion that all children are potentially 'A' students; all they need is the right teacher. This notion is causing harm in America, with teachers being blamed for a crumbling educational system. It is doing the same to a lesser degree in Jamaica.
Some children are excellent learners, others average, and others poor learners, if at all; and we need no specialists or scientists to tell us that. In the 1970s when I was in primary school in Porus, in our grade six class was a dear boy who was of a pleasant disposition, but he was dunce. He could barely write his name. At the end of the year for our final exam we took 10 subjects each with a maximum score of 100 marks; the total score being 1000 marks. The 'bright' children scored in the high 900s; average learners like me scored in the high 700s and low 800s'. At the end of exams we congratulated the dear boy for he had done exceptionally well that year. He had earned a total 25 marks out of a possible 1000! He just couldn't learn. In class when we were finishing a lesson, he was laboring to complete the writing of his name.
The politically correct crowd would have blamed the teacher for that boy's failure, but a teacher with Solomonic wisdom couldn't have made him learn. Similarly, were there such a teacher in Jamaica today, he or she couldn't make students like that boy literate. Mr Thwaites must accept that not all students are going to learn and it will not always the teachers' fault.
The second truth is that for a child to learn to the best of his or her potential he or she must get proper nutrition for the brain. Many children in Jamaica are hindered in their learning by a lack of proper nutrition; their parents can't afford to feed them well; and the government Mr Thwaites is part of is doing little to improve the economic conditions so people can feed themselves and their children properly.
Jamaica has a programme to feed school children, but it is inadequate. The education minister said recently that some 30% of school children attend school without eating breakfast. As things go in Jamaica, I believe the actual number is higher than that. How can these children learn, however willing and competent their teachers are?
Another thing inhibiting children's learning is the long distances some of them must walk to and from school, in many cases over difficult terrain. When I was in school many children lived up to seven miles away. They had to leave in the dark to walk the miles to school and they would return home in the dark. When they reached home they were tired and couldn't be able to study or do homework by lamplight as most didn't have electricity. That was some 30 years ago, but for many families living in rural Jamaica the conditions are the same: there is still the absence of roads and no electricity. And Mr Thwaites's government isn't doing enough to improve these conditions.
Until Mr Thwaites's government begins to provide basic services to Jamaicans such as good roads, electricity and transport, and begins to enable parents to provide proper housing and the other things their children need for learning, children will continue to learn below what they are capable of. And it won't be their teachers' fault.
Also, for children to learn they must be respectful of their teachers and be disciplined enough to attend to their lessons. Jamaica, to put it mildly, is a lawless country. Many people will condemn me for 'bashing' the country, but the facts cannot be disputed. Jamaica is one of the most violent societies on earth with one of the highest murder rates to prove it. Children are naturally violent and undisciplined. Some schools have become battlegrounds where children declare war on each other. In others they engage in sex, on the school property, unless the reports I read in the media are untrue. They curse and at times attack teachers; and they sometimes call in their parents to do the same.
Some children have no interest in learning and with the other obstacles that I have mentioned, even the best teachers have an impossible task in the classroom.
How can teachers make undisciplined students learn when they don't want to? I work as a substitute teacher in Florida and I daresay the situation isn't any better. Many classrooms aren't ruled by the teachers but by the students, and the teachers are afraid of them and the lawsuits their parents could bring. Students routinely tell teachers they do not want to learn and they don't care and the teacher can't make them.
Finally, the government must begin to pay teachers decent salaries to keep them in the classroom willing to work and also attract competent persons to the teaching profession. The government will say it has no money to increase teachers salaries, but it has money to increase its own salaries, buy expensive SUVs for its ministers and retain a host of advisors the value of whom is not being felt by Jamaicans.
The education of a person doesn't occur in a vacuum. It takes place in certain conditions most of which are either absent or present but in perilous shape in Jamaica. So the task of the PNP government is to either create or improve those conditions for its minister of education to succeed in his job. If it doesn't, Mr Thwaites will find himself trying to carry water with a basket.
Ewin James, a freelance writer, holds a Master's degree in Educational Supervision.