Box: The main reason for extra classes is the demand by parents who want their children to have a competitive edge over others
The adage "The more things change, the more they remain the same" rings so true with the shift system and extra classes. These two topics have been raised again with stridency, but without balance regarding the pros and cons. There have been a few fair arguments on both issues, but there has been much hot air also. Little if any reflective discourse is conducted. What concerns me most is that there has not been an organised way for those most affected to tell their own story. A few in the media have been heard expressing their own views, but much analysis has been lacking. Worse, we have not heard how the negative aspects can be lessened and the positives enhanced. What were deemed solutions to a problem have now become "main problems" for some people. Let's think about this.
Extra classes are found in many education systems around the world. Even in countries like Japan with 240 days in the school year, extra classes are instituted for a variety of reasons. The main reason has been the demand by parents who want their children to have a competitive edge over others. Where I am from in rural Jamaica, there were "evening classes" for the Jamaica Local Examinations from the early 20th century, but "extra classes" for in-school students started shortly after the 1957 introduction of the selection exam, the Common Entrance Examination (CEE). The introduction was a major milestone in the history of our education system. Bright and able students from poor backgrounds were then able to enter high schools through scholarship, where only the privileged and moneyed class had access.
The exam introduced a subject, mental ability, not taught per se, but which was claimed to be predictive of academic success. It carried the greatest weight. With open competition to secure a place being a reality, the privileged responded by offering to pay for extra classes. Simultaneously, many schools saw much promise in some of their students and offered extra classes, then called "scholarship" classes, to enhance their chances of a high school award. Though not developed as a selection exam, the GSAT, which replaced the CEE, was conveniently used as one. The rest is history. From all we know, people all over the country demanded these classes for free or pay. Regrettably, some teachers have abused the system and this needs addressing.
A compounding issue is the fact that many parents don't accept the claim that the regular school programme will suffice. Furthermore and ironically, critics of the exam say the curriculum is too wide and can't be completed in the regular school day. But others say that the teachers are holding back instruction for their fee-paying classes. Are there contradictions? Interestingly, in New York the state pays for extra classes for some students. But what are the arguments for and against extra classes in Jamaica? How are they organised and who stands to benefit most? An unbiased assessment should generate more light and less heat.
The shift system
After a pilot conducted on it at Jones Town Primary and then Tarrant Junior Secondary, the shift system was formally implemented in the education system in 1974 on the recommendation of a committee commissioned to do an in-depth study of primary education in Jamaica and chaired by the late Professor RN Murray. The aim was to increase access to education in keeping with the trend towards universal primary and secondary education. Said the committee, "Shift has enabled both schools to admit more pupils and to educate them in less crowded conditions...". It was greater access to education. Among other things, the system provided for "holding areas" for the arriving and departing shift, but alas the provision of these facilities was near zero.
It should be noted that the introduction of the shift system coincided with the first global oil shock and crisis. Expenditure budgets for oil imports soared and went out of line with revenue intake. In that scenario, no timetable was set to review the innovation. In fact, the circumstances dictated an expansion of the shift system. Persistent economic difficulties since have not helped. Would 4 1/2 hours of instruction be better than zero hours, and for thousands of students should the shift be discontinued now? Could successive governments have done more to reduce the need for the "shift"? What are the strengths and weaknesses of the system? What are possible improvements?
Recently the educational fraternity lost one of its most illustrious educators, Arthur Williams Snr Thinker, innovator and exemplar, his reputation as a master teacher went far and wide. He was a pioneer of distance education here, with the development of a correspondence course for the then Jamaica Local Examinations. The technology he used was the typewriter! His contribution to the education system is immense. His legacy will outlast his long and productive 99 years. I pay tribute to his memory.