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Jamaica needs two ministries of education

Lance Neita

Sunday, July 15, 2018

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The graduation cycle has passed and thousands of students have dozed off while listening to their commencement speaker. A commencement address is a speech given to graduating students, generally at a university, generally in the US, although the term is also used for secondary education institutions in Jamaica.

In my school days I don't recall that we had all these formal graduations that make the rounds today. There was absolutely no form of graduation from infant school or A class into B class. You merely moved from one bench to the other, from one teacher to the other, until you reached fifth class, when you were now in the hands of “Big Teacher”, the headmaster.

There was no gown to worry about, no new pair of shoes to be bought, no ceremony, no guest speaker. At elementary school in those days you relished the slight hope of a government free scholarship, (very few to go around), a job in the local community business establishment, or — if your family had connections — a call to the local government agencies to receive a record-keeping job, or become an educated labourer — which was precisely what the original colonial educational system predestined you to be.

Secondary schools were few and far between, university non-existent, and only those boys and girls who got into Farm School, the police force, or into a trade learnt from homespun skills in barbering, cooking, or tailoring, saw some form of a future.

Secondary school spaces were limited. In my case, a few fortunate ones may have passed an exam (this was before the Common Entrance Examination of 1955), or had parents who could afford a term or two. The names of these bright scholars were announced in Sunday School class, and the awardees would stand up to a round of applause from the church benches, long prayers to ensure that they walked the straight and narrow after leaving the village, and a packed “grip” or suitcase as they were hustled off to Kingston to board with a family friend or relative.

The Sunday School was perhaps the official graduation ceremony. For one thing was certain, when you returned home for holidays you were too big to stay in the Sunday School benches, and so you moved up into the general pews.

For years I was one of those who criticised the trend developing of graduations for every level in the education system. Even basic schools are having graduations — from what to what I don't know — but the parents are beaming, the little kids are as proud as peacocks as they walk up to receive their papers, teachers are on their toes to ensure that the function comes off well, and the entire village is there to applaud and to register their satisfaction with yet another graduation ceremony for the little school.

I have changed my attitude and turned full circle, as the functions I have attended recently display good planning and the great effort made by teachers to bring off a faultless ceremony must be recognised. Particularly in the rural areas where, for weeks before the ceremony, hairdressers and dressmakers are bombarded with orders, taxi drivers get their fill, and the village economy gets a lift as the graduation date is whispered reverently and looked forward to with pride if you have a loved one as a graduand.

Credit must go to the rural schools as they have lifted the standard over and above the Kingston schools when it comes to graduation. The function becomes a communal affair and is the pride and joy of the entire community, who are out in full support.

Jamaicans really take their graduations seriously. My wife once ran a small garment-making factory in the country, but could she ever get her seamstresses to work during graduation week? It seemed everyone had a daughter or a son and money saved up from the beginning of the year to spend on dress and gown, hairdo and barber cuts, handbag and shoes, and don't forget the fashionable outfit to be worn by mom herself.

This is also the opportunity for politicians to attend and preen themselves onstage, make promises and announcements, and fawn over the achievers whose parents they will claim to have known and been friends with from birth.

Teachers are always happy when they see a Member of Parliament or a government minister turn up at their functions; they know that if they handle it properly they will earn a promise of funding.

But seriously, I can't make light of our graduation functions. When I attend a function nowadays, especially a basic school function, I believe I join with all those who understand the need and the importance of giving all children in Jamaica, from basic to primary to secondary to tertiary and beyond, the soundest possible footing for their education.

And the attention paid to a basic school graduation is quite important. The lack of basic educational opportunities can have lasting effects. We still hear regretful reports of students entering universities and in need of catching-up on their reading and arithmetic.

We have heard so often from successive ministers of education and prime ministers that early childhood education is going to be revolutionised in Jamaica; that it is going to be properly financed and streamlined, schools are going to be built, teachers are going to be trained specifically for that purpose — but so far it is only piecemeal. Our basic schools continue to play second fiddle to the other educational levels when it ought to be first fiddle, lead guitar, and full orchestra cohort.

This is why I believe that the time has come not just to continue making palliative announcements, but to find a way to concentrate full and maximum focus on early childhood education, release funds and resources, and make plans to start the early childhood revolution now.

One way of doing this, and it sounds revolutionary and therefore strange and uncomfortable, is to divide the Ministry of Education into two. One ministry for junior or basic education to accommodate early childhood and primary, the other for a 'Ministry of Senior Education' to continue to lead secondary and tertiary and university education.

The role of the 'Junior Ministry' — fully equipped with its own staff and resources — will be to prepare and bring our children up to a stage at which they can be formerly presented or inducted into the secondary level stream as fully literate.

The shocking reality is that, and according to statistics I have seen, fewer than one out of three children entering grade one are ready for the primary level.

The Junior Ministry of Education should be the bedrock of education in this country, the fulcrum, yet with the same importance as the 'Senior Ministry'. The early childhood and primary school sector should have its own minister, its own programme, its own education officers, its own buildings, its own responsibility to the nation. Otherwise we are missing out on the vital importance of that sector — the foundation levels for all future education in Jamaica.

Consider this: The opening mission statement under the education section of the Jamaica Vision 2030 National Development Plan is: “To ensure that all children zero to eight years old have access to adequate early childhood education and development programmes.” Laudable and correct, but such a goal cannot be met in piecemeal fashion.

Yes we already have a junior minister, but that person operates as a part of the general Ministry of Education. Take that person out of the present ministry and put him in charge of preparing the next generation for this education revolution.

Another ministry, you ask? Yes, we can easily drop two, or, if you think about it, drop three in exchange for this important one.

Every child has a right to the best possible start in life. Research has proven that the earliest years of a child's life are a critical period for cognitive, social and emotional development, creating a solid foundation for health and well-being in childhood and beyond.

Now, don't get me wrong, the various governments of Jamaica have not been sleeping on these issues, and great steps forward have been taken over the past 20 years to rapidly improve the early childhood development status. The integration of early childhood development activities within the Ministry of Education in 1998 was an institutional change for the better. So was the establishment of an Early Childhood Commission in 2004 to oversee developments and coordination in that area. And recently we heard of a new unit established to focus on basic school education. Credit must be given to those countless teachers and workers across Jamaica who have worked tirelessly towards imparting proper education at the basic school and primary levels. Credit, too, for government initiatives, to the churches, private individuals and sponsors, the non-government organisations like UNICEF, the private sector, and many others who contribute significantly and selflessly to early childhood education. Step by step we are moving along, but even the ministry will concede that we are not moving quickly enough.

But now here comes the revolution; the turnaround which would demonstrate that we really believe in the value and importance of providing a solid foundation at the junior level, where it matters most, so that every child can learn, and every child must learn. We need a second ministry to handle this important portfolio; let's start now.

Lance Neita is a public relations consultant and writer. Comments to the Observer or to lanceneita@hotmail.com

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