FORMER Jamaica Prime Minister PJ Patterson believes that the awarding of 2,000 free places to children attending secondary schools by Chief Minister Norman Washington Manley, in 1958, remains the most important achievement by the People's National Party (PNP) in its 75-year history.
Patterson, who co-chairs the organising committee for the party's Diamond (75th) celebrations with PNP leader and Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller, told Jamaica Observer senior journalists during a special sitting of the Observer Monday Exchange at his St Andrew home, this week, that the move paid off for Jamaica, as it revolutionised education that has been at the forefront of the island's progress.
"I am coming to the conclusion that, apart from the drive to make us a nation, the most influential thing is the granting of 2,000 free places by Norman Manley's Government, in 1958, which resulted in an embrace of people into the secondary education system from which has sprung not only a broad cadre of professionals in all spheres of endeavour, but who have produced sons and daughters who have been brought forward into a new dispensation and who have never looked back," Patterson said.
"Some of the people who you might still call visceral PNP, it's because they have sprung from those loins. It's a difficult thing for anybody nowadays to accept, but when you think that today there are 101 girls' schools and 102 boys' schools and you think of [the] elitist system that existed... everyday I remember people who went to primary school with me, and who were at the same level of academic performance, probably some even brighter than me, the difference was the scholarship obtained," he added.
"In those days, there were about 35 scholarships for boys in all the secondary schools. When it multiplied from 35 to 2,000 in the first year and kept on going, it was a different cadre... the middle class expanded way beyond," stated Patterson, who was prime minister of Jamaica between 1992 and 2006.
However, the awarding of scholarships by the Norman Manley Administration was, according to Patterson, not embraced by everyone.
"It happened before the 1959 campaign, when I was then in the field, and I will never forget that in some constituencies the Opposition was saying 'down with scholarships, give us sugarship'.
"It was taken to the extreme by some who were saying 'education cyaan nyam, salt fish can. I am deliberately not attributing that to any political person, but it existed. The People's National Party has always stood for, and has never compromised equality of opportunity," stated Patterson, retired member of parliament for Westmoreland East.
The PNP will have several activities to mark its 75th year of existence between next month and September, culminating with the organisation's annual conference.
Dubbed 'Honouring our Past... A Powerful Foundation for Today and Tomorrow', the activities begin on April 7 with a church service at a venue to be decided, and end with the four-day conference from September 19-22.