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The educated Jamaican

Grace VIRTUE

Wednesday, April 02, 2014    

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Tara Rivers, Cayman Islands' minister of education, employment and gender affairs, at the March 19-21 conference, "Towards a Corruption-Free Caribbean: Ethics, Values, Trust and Morality," University College of the Cayman Islands, profiled "the educated Caymanian" as a good communicator; creative, and appreciative of the arts; good at finding solutions to problems, flexible and adaptable to change; having a strong work ethic and willingness to become an honest, reliable and responsible member of the workforce; respectful of God him/herself, people from different backgrounds, the environment, and property; a good team player, civic-minded and willing to serve.

Intrigued, I searched for and found a profile of the educated Jamaican in the 2004 Task Force on Educational Reform report, titled Jamaica: A Transformed Education System. The educated Jamaican, it says, loves to learn and will...continuously develop wisdom and knowledge; is well-rounded, agile of mind, able to adjust to changing situations, responsible and able to make decisions; speaks an additional language; is a productive citizen, worker in charge of his/her personal and economic advancement; and, contribute to national development by being socially aware and responsible, conscious of what is good for society, committed to a sustainable lifestyle, spiritually conscious and mature, tolerant of diversity, rooted his/her Jamaican "smaddiness".

Whereas the Caymanian profile is quite concrete, much of ours is open to interpretation. The issue of Jamaicans speaking an additional language, for example, raises the question, addition to what? Patois or English? It is important since we don't quite know what language we speak. Cayman also seems to do a fair job of getting its desired outcome. It is largely safe, law-abiding, and generally meeting the needs of its citizens. The most important observation, however, is of the effort Jamaica has made, over the last decade, at least, to provide a good education for its children. However, Minister of Education Ronnie Thwaites has been at pains to point out that the returns are not commensurate with expenditure.

There are several reasons for this.

First, just like elsewhere in the public sector, the education system has traditionally functioned in a context of waste, inefficiencies and corruption. This means that funds were not necessarily spent in ways designed to maximise returns, nor were the best professionals always in place. For example, school boards, particularly in rural areas, for a long time, and perhaps still, function as extensions of the ruling political party, and key appointments made accordingly.

Second, the education system, particularly at the secondary level, is dysfunctional. The task force cited a "scathing" report by UNESCO in 1983: "The variety of types of secondary schools appears confusing, but actually, boils down to two: the high schools and the others. The differences can be seen in admission criteria, types of curriculum; enrolment patterns, future promise, social currency, and unit expenditure..." As of 2003, 20 years later, "and after substantial financial investment in education, the system continues to be dysfunctional," the task force said. "The two types of secondary schools persist, despite efforts at upgrading and rationalisation."

Now, 30 years later, the system persists. Former Contractor General Greg Christie notes the tendency of some public institutions to be dysfunctional, "whether by reason of flawed constructs, structural deficiencies, and inadequate resources, poorly trained staff, non-aggressive leadership..." The education system exhibits most of these characteristics.

Third, there is direct conflict between the system and socio-economic realities. In a context of high unemployment and cyclical poverty, many parents cannot absorb the cost of their children's basic education, much less to add resources to enhance learning experience. Further, as expressed by Thwaites, the society needs more skills-based education, but with academics as status symbol, even those who clearly should be pursuing such a (skills-based) path are deemed to be failing in ways that the society considers important. A woodworker, for example, or a plumber or landscaper, can all be productive citizens and successful entrepreneurs regardless of whether he/she passes English Language or even mathematics. He/she, therefore, needs not be part of a cohort deemed to have failed these subjects at the CSEC level.

Fourth, education is dynamic. Given our history, we are hard put to keep up since foundational issues end up being treated as developmental goals. The task force report shows how far we were behind, despite immense progress, and how far we needed to have gone in 10 years just to correct some of those issues. The target date for many of the goals outlined is 2015. The education ministry has undergone several leadership changes. Though all have committed to the reforms, and youth and culture shunted elsewhere, some goals will remain unmet. In the meantime, global education has moved at least 10 years beyond our 2015 agenda.

Former Prime Minister P J Patterson, at the launch of the task force in 2004, noted that: "Jamaica is part of the global village of this century of open borders, easy travel, mass migration and easy access to information and technology. We are no longer educating our people to live in Jamaica. We are preparing them for a borderless world. Times have changed and we too must change. We, as a nation, must critically examine the product and... make the changes that are called for."

"I want a vision that puts Jamaica's children first and keeps them there. I want a vision that lifts our children from mediocrity to excellence," Patterson said.

Somehow I cannot conflate that vision with ranking schools based on GSAT and CSEC results within a construct that is differentiated and unequal. Parsing it is important, though because within it lies the solution of a better and relevant education system, and by extension the profile of the 21st century educated Jamaican.

Washington, DC-based scholar, Dr Grace Virtue is a public affairs practitioner, analyses social policy and advocates social justice. Comments to gvirtue@usa.net

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