Thoughts for the ASTEP review
We take note of the announcement by Education Minister Rev Ronald Thwaites that the Alternative Secondary Transition Education Programme (ASTEP) is being reviewed.
The minister wants to be sure that the remedial programme targeting children in the 12-14 age bracket is achieving its objectives and delivering value for money.
Readers will recall that the programme, initiated by the previous Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) Government under the leadership of then Education Minister Mr Andrew Holness, was triggered by the unacceptably high number of functional illiterates entering high schools annually.
The situation was so bad that in 2011 when ASTEP started, thousands of children entered the programme -- having been barred from sitting the high school entrance exam, Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT), because they were below the minimum levels of literacy and numeracy considered satisfactory for their age group.
How the Ministry of Education could have allowed the situation prior to ASTEP to have continued for so many years without far-reaching remedial action has not been satisfactorily explained, in our view.
In that respect, this newspaper was among those hailing the ASTEP when it was initiated, even while recognising that it could only be a stop-gap measure.
We say stop gap, because the even more fundamental question is why do so many of our children reach age 12 or grade six without being functionally literate.
A large part of the answer is to be found within the schools themselves -- often having to make do with overcrowded classrooms as well as demotivated or ill-suited teachers.
Very importantly, the underperformance of our children at all ages has to do with the inadequacy of resources. Mr Thwaites tells us, for example, that in the case of ASTEP, the resource shortage has been a huge drawback.
However, in contemplating not only the ASTEP, but our entire primary and secondary school system, we should also recognise that not all blame should be placed at the feet of schools or the Ministry of Education.
The truth is that illiteracy and ignorance go hand in hand with poverty. Many of our children falling below the required literacy and numeracy levels are from impoverished homes where parents and guardians are themselves, at best, only semi-literate. In such situations the importance of an education for the young ones can sometimes be perceived as only secondary, given the other daily demands -- economic and otherwise.
That explains why so many of our children go to school only two or three days per week. Which, as rural school principal Mrs Sheelyn Manya suggested in an interview with the Observer Central back in June, could explain why so many end up illiterate at age 12 and as a consequence in ASTEP.
Rev Thwaites, a sober and thoughtful man, and his team will have to consider all this and much more in their review of the ASTEP with the aim, we expect, to make it more efficient and cost-effective.We wish them well.