JTA advocates high school placement system revamp

JTA advocates high school placement system revamp

Senior staff reporter

Monday, October 26, 2020

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Jamaica Teachers' Association (JTA) President Jasford Gabriel is pushing for a revamp of the placement system for students matriculating to the high school level, arguing that the inequity now manifested has handicapped Jamaica socially and economically.

The JTA president, who is also principal of the popular Manchester High School in Mandeville in central Jamaica, is of the opinion that a lack of will to address the placement scheme under what was known as the Common Entrance Exam, now Primary Exit Profile (PEP), is resulting in blighted futures for thousands of youth.

“...When they transition to the secondary level is where I think as a nation we have not gotten it right and we will continue to have social and economic problems... We have about 8,000 spaces for traditional high schools in Jamaica, we have in excess of 39,000 students coming out of the primary school system. How do we place them? We place the students just based on performance, so once they fill out the seats in the traditional high schools all the other students, which is roughly 80 per cent, end up in schools that they really didn't want to go to anyway,” Gabriel told Richard “Richie B” Burgess last week during his Top Of The Morning show on the Jamaica Observer's sister radio station The Edge 105FM.

Arguing that the system, passed down from the colonial era, has been protected by the well to dos in society who use their connections to ensure that their children get into the traditional high schools, even if their grades are below par, Gabriel said there is “a simple remedy”.

“It's a system that places one set of students as superior and another inferior and I think we must totally have this disregarded, discredited, reorganised, revamped... this 20 per cent keep getting the top opportunities while 80 per cent is struggling,” the JTA president stated.

“I am also principal of a traditional high school so I can speak very clearly to this. I have students travelling miles, passing six different high schools to come to Mandeville... and it is the same kind of thing happening across the country. I am saying, once we can ascertain, coming out of the PEP examinations, that for example the average in terms of scores that the students are getting — let's say 65 per cent — then I believe as much as possible each high school should have an average that mirrors that,” Gabriel proposed.

“This thing where 20 per cent of the schools get averages 90 to 100 and then the other 80 per cent have averages zero to 20 and then you have a full cohort of students placed into institutions like this, I think it's a real disservice to our nation's children and to our future in terms of where we want to go as a society and it is something we need to look at,” he argued further.

“What I am proposing would not require students to be travelling long distances to get into particular schools; what we would have is equity in terms of placement, so within each environment you now have students at different levels, those who are high-performing, those who are average, and those who are low-performing,” the JTA president proffered.

He said Jamaica's school administrators and teachers have proven over time that they possess the requisite skills and strategies to deal with this kind of dynamic and get the best out of students.

“We all know that there is a very close correlation between poor behaviour and poor academic performance and so what do you expect when you place students who are failing all in one place with averages 20 to 30 per cent and then we go to speak to them at their ceremonies and tell them to bloom where they are planted and it's not so much the school that you go, it's the attitude.

“The truth is, it's maybe the best we can say to them, but the very look in their eyes tell us they don't trust us and they have been dealt a hard game,” Gabriel said.

The JTA head said every year, as a principal, he sees the frustrations of students who have been placed into institutions they are in conflict with because of how society views those schools.

“I will take a cohort of students that were placed in at non-traditional school with poor grades because they get in through sports and all these other means and they come in and do as well as, sometimes even outperforming, all those others who were placed into the traditional institution; and so I am calling for us to give each child the best chance to do well,” he said.

“The last ranking of schools I looked at, for example, we have 20 schools getting 90 per cent or more of their students passing five or more subjects. And we know which schools these are, they come from the ranks of these name brand schools but what happens is that we have 100 schools where 80 per cent of the students are failing; as a matter of urgency that needs to be tackled,” Gabriel insisted.

“I don't know how we could believe that a system like this is tenable, what you have is students with self-esteem issues, students who see themselves as failures — administrators and students. I happen to know much more work goes on in these non-traditional than these traditional high schools because the challenges are so great trying to add value, to deal with the behavioural issues. They never get recognised and then on top of that now a ranking comes out to list schools to say who is 'number one' going down to last and then we label these schools and administrators and children as failing. I think the system would have failed themselves,” he added.

He said the short-term fix for the situation is “equity in placement”.

“Once you do that, the labels would begin to go. Over time this would be evened out. I have started these discussions, we know it is not an easy fix, people are accepting in principle,” the JTA head said.

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