The Manleys and free education


Thursday, May 02, 2019

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Exactly 46 years ago today Michael Manley, as prime minister of Jamaica, announced in Parliament that as of September 1973 the Government would be “embarking upon a system of free education in this country”. This was greeted with loud applause from both sides of the House.

Free education, which included free meals and free uniforms, was put into effect in all government-owned and government-aided schools in September 1973. Free education, with free boarding facilities, at the university level was put into effect in 1974.

Partial free education at the high school level was introduced in 1957 during the tenure of the then chief minister of Jamaica Norman Manley. From as far back as 1938, free education was an integral part of the manifesto of the People's National Party (PNP).

In 1973, at the inauguration of total free education, many upper-class Jamaicans pulled their children out of the top-status high schools and sent them abroad. Apparently, they wished to maintain the class system and saw free education as a dangerous aspect of socialism, or even communism as some called it.

However, apart from the liberation and information aspects of free education, one spin-off from the historic venture into free education was a partial destruction of the social barriers that existed far more then than now. In 1957, the then Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) Opposition, led by Sir Alexander Bustamante, made fun of the grant-aided Common Entrance Examination by saying that “saltfish is better than education”.

But the same JLP that indicated a preference of saltfish to education had campaigned in 1980, at televised political rallies, by listing the schools that had been “built by labour” in the 1960s. And in 2002 the JLP made free education a plank of its election manifesto, around the time of the return of Bruce Golding to the JLP.

After only one term of free education, as announced by Michael Manley, there was the oil crisis of December 1973. With a sharp increase in the price of oil worldwide, it threatened to derail free education because far more foreign exchange was being used to import oil. This, therefore, meant far less foreign exchange to import items needed in schools, such as paper in that pre-Internet era, among other things.

To continue free education, Michael Manley announced in 1974 a levy on the bauxite companies that previously paid an insulting 'flippance' for the bauxite dirt, which they made into aluminium products and sold at several times the price of the dirt.

For the bauxite levy, Michael Manley was vilified by upper-class Jamaicans who were appalled at the idea and, worse, that it was used for free education of poor and hungry children. This they saw as gross mismanagement of the economy, thinking that Michael Manley had gone totally communist and that he needed to have his head examined by a psychiatrist.

The JLP won the October 30, 1980 election and Edward Seaga became prime minister. The new Government returned to a borrowing arrangement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) previously ended by the Michael Manley-led PNP Government earlier in 1980.

By 1986 the JLP Government announced a cess on university students. Was that an IMF conditionality for the continuation of the loaning of funds? I do not know.

The Government changed again to the PNP in February 1989.

By the early 1990s the PNP Government announced that there was to be cost-sharing in the schools on a voluntary basis. However, no student was to be turned out for not paying school fees — a rule which remains in effect to this day. This means that technically education is still free — a concept that has not changed since it was introduced in 1973.

At that time I was a teacher at the Lluidas Vale Youth Camp in St Catherine, which was a part of Social Development Commission. I recall the jubilation among the ordinary working class people who surrounded me when free education was announced. I resided at the youth camp, so it would be some weeks later before I heard first-hand the opposite reaction from the upper classes in Jamaica.

It is an amazing coincidence that I was on the teaching staff of a youth trade training camp when free education was announced by Michael Manley in 1973. Norman Manley had established the youth camps in 1955 (forerunner of the HEART academies for which former Prime Minister Edward Seaga claims total credit).

The elder Manley's main reason for establishing the youth camps was to provide skills training and to instill in Jamaica's young people a sense of correct values and attitudes. His son Michael devoted a whole chapter in his book, Politics of Change, to self-reliance and attitudes (Part 1, Chapter 4, pages 42 -50).

In part 2, chapter 4, Manley wrote: “I can recall my own years at school as providing not one single course or class which was designed to give me an attitude about anything… no one ever asked me to consider whether there was any reason why I should be my brother's keeper or he mine.” (page 139)

Apart from church-owned schools, where ethics, ministry and voluntary service are taught to students, free education in Jamaica has not, in the general sense, provided training in values and attitudes. During his tenure as prime minister, P J Patterson tried to establish a values and attitudes programme but did not succeed, largely because of influential detractors.

We should stop using education as a political football. We should design public education to suit our own needs. We also need to stop miseducating our young people in rewriting history by giving credit to individuals who do not deserve it, and by uttering lies and half-truths.

And those who accuse me — not always to my face — of rewriting history, perhaps because truth can be uncomfortable, should provide evidence that their accusations have merit.

Michael Burke is a research consultant, historian and current affairs analyst. Send comments to the Observer or

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