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Random reflections on 50 years of Independence

Ken Chaplin
Tuesday, July 31, 2012

In the first part of this column last Tuesday we discussed the effect their Jamaica's rapid population increase had on housing and education; we noted improvements in health care and the phenomenal rise of women in banking and other areas as well as corruption in many projects of government before Greg Christie became contractor general in 2005.

Today I continue with education because of its transcending importance to development, and some aspects of public housing. The entities concerned with public housing and education could not provide any information on the total number of public houses and primary and secondary schools built during the 50 years of Jamaica's Independence. This information is critical for posterity. However, we know that thousands of houses and hundreds of primary and secondary schools were built by the two governments that have governed Jamaica during those 50 years. In the 1960s a challenge began in St Thomas with the introduction of compulsory education at the primary level on an experimental basis with Dr Mavis Gilmour as minister of education. It is a pity it could not be continued because of shortage of funds.

A great forward leap in exposing the masses to secondary education was made many years ago when scholarships to secondary schools were awarded on the basis of 70 to primary schools and 30 to secondary schools. This was based on the results of the common entrance examination. Today places in secondary schools are based on the Grade Sixth Achievement Test. For some parents it is nerve-racking waiting for the results, but I do not see any other way of determining the admission of children to secondary education but by a competitive process.

It is debatable whether the standard of primary education has improved over the past 70 years by any appreciable degree. Then boys or girls with a sixth-class primary school-leaving certificate could use it as the basis for further studies, especially if they were strong in English and mathematics. A Third Year Jamaica Local Examination Certificate could land students in various jobs and allow them to get into training in teaching and other professions and for further studies. Many top secondary schools have been released from their exclusiveness by an inflow of students from primary schools. I think this mixture is paying off socially in many schools and for the social fabric of the country. What is most worrying of late is that some students who have passed through the primary and secondary systems are still unable to read and write properly and are backward in English Language. Over the past few years the results in the GCE and CXC sat by secondary school students have been brilliant, encouraging in some areas and downright disappointing in others. Technical education and skill training with HEART/ National Training Agency in the lead made remarkable progress.

I believe we have to return the quality of primary education to the high level it was 70 years ago. For one thing the ratio of one teacher to 35 students has to be reduced so that more individual attention can be given to students. Unless children can clear the primary and secondary level with high marks, they cannot do well in the information and communication technology areas which are of utmost importance in today's world and are at a high standard in Jamaica and moving upwards.

Early childhood education with strong leadership has reached its zenith in Jamaica today with skilled teachers compared with the large number of untrained infant school teachers across the country in my days. Nevertheless, I want to pay tribute to those teachers who held the reins for a long, long time and especially those who cared for children while their parents were at work.

The National Housing Trust should devise a scheme to provide more houses for the working class since this is an area where private investors have not shown much interest. Of course, the problem is that most of the poor are not earning sufficient money to maintain the payment of loans. However, the NHT can be proud of its efforts in providing middle-class and lower middle-class houses. It must research the number of houses it has provided since its inception. I requested this information but it never came through.

I love the theatre, and in the late l940s or early 1950s the Caribbean Thespians and Cathedral Players were my favourite theatre groups. Since that time many view theatres have opened in the Corporate Area. The Little Theatre Movement has been a source of strength in the development of the theatre over the years. The yearly pantomime has been able to hold its own and the National Dance Theatre Company which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year sustained its high-class performances under the leadership of Rex Nettleford (now deceased). Actress Louise Bennett-Coverley and actors Ranny Williams and Oliver Samuels established a legacy in the Jamaican culture that cannot die. The number of art galleries increased by a considerable extent and Barry Watson developed into a master painter.

It is in music that the greatest impact has been made. Classical music has all but died since the Surrey Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Sibthorpe Beckett slowed down its tempo, but a few tenors and sopranos still satisfy the appetite of the few remaining lovers of classical music. Chants of the reggae and dancehall variety now dominate the scene and the songs of Bob Marley are much alive though he is dead. I do not regard Marley's renditions as Reggae Music. Rather, his songs are a message of redemption, hope and glory to the oppressed and disinherited of the world.

As far as modelling is concerned, Kingsley Cooper of Pulse is the man of the half-century. He has lifted many Jamaican models from humble beginnings to the spotlight of the world, while in beauty contests we can be proud to have had three Miss World winners. In athletics Jamaican sprinters now rule the world. Jamaican women are remarkable in fashion. Fifty years ago, few of them could manage high heels. Today the vast majority of them walk in these shoes with consummate ease. It did not happen like that. They trained mostly at home to walk gracefully in them. The biggest change in sports took place at the once posh Kingston Cricket Club where 70 years ago the members were 99.9 per cent white and high brown. Today the membership is almost l00 per cent black. I once asked the famous KCC, Jamaica and West Indies cricketer, Allan Rae (now deceased) how this happened. "Time has changed," he replied. Our sprinters rule the world, led by Usain Bolt. Jamaica reached the finals of the World Cup in France in 1998, a remarkable achievement, but our footballers seem to be sleeping since.

A politician named Edward Seaga, who was MP for Western Kingston, a minister and later prime minister, transformed Tivoli Gardens in his constituency from the worst slum in the Caribbean, called Back-a-Wall, into a progressive community. It is a pity that a few criminals spoilt the name of the community and the security forces seem to despise the people. But Tivoli Gardens is rising again. The Rastafarians were the most persecuted religious group in the country but they overcame this. It took Jamaicans more than 50 years to realise that not every man that wears a beard and keeps his hair in locks is a wrongdoer. The media person of the half-century was Theodore Sealy, editor-in-chief of The Daily Gleaner while Barbara Gloudon, noted journalist and broadcaster and distinguished playwright, I call lady of the theatre.

During the 50 years we condemned our politicians for the lack of progress, but in fact much progress has been made compared with the colonial era.

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