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Towards a level playing field

Kevin ASHER

Monday, July 21, 2014    

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MUCH has been written about high school sports and the transfer of elite athletes between the top schools. For those who have weighed in on the subject of athletics in school I have no doubt that they have the best intentions for Jamaica's youth and would like to see improvement in the way our schools educate our youngsters. I have no doubt, also, that their time spent debating the ills of high school athletics have been counterbalanced by the work they do within these institutions to rectify the situation.

Most of us agree that Jamaica's educational playing field is not level. For those who don't agree, I would like to refer them to the educatejamaica.org website to look at the recent high school rankings. This same disparity exists among schools when it comes to sports. This was the main point of my article published on June 2, 2014, which was to focus attention on these disparities as the driving force behind the transfer of athletes, and students in general, between schools.

Recruitment — a life-changing opportunity

The transfer of students between schools occur for any number of reasons — better school, better learning environment, better opportunity to maximise talents, better facilities, etc. An athlete who gets into a school based on his or her prowess at sports does not necessarily displace an academically gifted student.

Just about all of Jamaica's high schools are operating in excess of their student capacity. If we subtracted all the athletes, most would still be above their designated student capacity (Ministry of Education School Profiles 2012-2013).

When a student is offered an athletic scholarship to a university, the coach recruits an athlete to help improve his team and win games. The student-athlete, on the other hand, gets an opportunity to further his education and to develop marketable skills for independent living. This is a life-changing opportunity.

The 'best and brightest'

The same holds true for high school students in Jamaica. An analysis of the most recent educatejamaica.org high school rankings shows that no school outside of the top 50 (out of 161 total high schools) has ever won Boys' Champs. Furthermore, with the exception of 10 schools, all the past Manning and Walker Cup champions are from the top 50 best-performing schools in Jamaica. Schools in the top 50 have won 84 per cent of the Cups. This is since the inception of these competitions in 1909.

On the academic side, more than 35 per cent of the students in the top 50 schools managed to pass five or more CSEC subjects by grade 11 (including math and/or English). Students at the highest-ranked school to win any of these competitions had pass rates of 88 per cent. Clearly, 35-88 per cent means there is plenty of room for improvement, but it could be worse.

Based on the educatejamaica.org and Ministry of Education data, less than 10 per cent of grade 11 students in the bottom 50 passed five or more subjects. A transfer from the bottom 50 to the top 50 may very well be a life-changing opportunity.

Play ball, stay in school

The overwhelming majority of studies have underscored the value of sports in education. Dr Lee Sitkowski (PhD Education), in 2008, based on his research of available data, arrived at the following conclusions:

It was determined that there was a significant relationship that existed between academic performance, measured by GPA, and athletic participation. Through an analysis of 249 high school sophomores and junior boys and girls, it was found that athletic participation had a positive impact on academic performance.

In another study at Hardiness Research, it was also shown that boys who participated in high school sports, by a ratio of 2:1, did better in school, were less likely to get in trouble and were more likely to finish college. For girls, the ratio was 3:1. Multiple studies have also shown where participation in sports facilitates social interactions between teammates, coaches, and the wider school community that reduces the dropout rate among athletes.

In Jamaica, in particular, sports have been shown to keep kids off the streets and out of a life of crime and violence. It also offers opportunities for university education that would otherwise be impossible. Other studies have also shown that schools with traditions of accomplishments in sports generate widespread interest in their schools and are able to attract better students. The overall effect is to raise the academic standards at these school.

Short end of the shift

When we examine the facts, it becomes obvious that sports in Jamaica's schools are the least of their problems. We therefore need to shift the debate back to some of the institutional problems facing our high schools. One area that is screaming for attention is the shift system. Of the 39 high schools listed by the Ministry of Education 2012-13 School Profiles report, none were ranked in the top 50 based on the educatejamaica.org criteria. The overwhelming majority being bottom dwellers.

We need to target more of our education resources to eliminate the high school shift system in Jamaica. These students have shorter classes, shorter school days, and are getting the shorter end of the education stick.

Dr Kevin Asher is a Wolmerian, youth football coach, and a former college and professional football player.

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