Better to row our own boat
Jamica gained independence in 1962

Many years ago journalist extraordinaire, the late Wilmot "Motty" Perkins, told a story of a woman who cried uncontrollably on the night when the Union Jack was lowered and the Jamaican National Flag hoisted. Perkins said he asked the woman if she was overcome with tears because of the sight of the Jamaican flag being raised for the first time. He recounted that the woman told him that she was crying because the Union Jack was being lowered for the last.

We have dozens of people like this woman in Jamaica today. In recent times we have seen scientific poll findings which said that a majority of Jamaicans believed that Jamaica would have been better-off if we had remained a colony. The findings of a Bill Johnson opinion poll in The Gleaner of June 28, 2011 revealed 60 per cent of Jamaicans held the view that Jamaica would be better off today if we had remained under British rule. Seventeen per cent believed the contrary, and 23 per cent said they did not know. I am on the side of the 17 per cent.

In 2017 another poll by Bill Johnson, published in The Gleaner, found that 49 per cent of Jamaicans believed Independence was an error, while 27 per cent thought the country would be in a worse position if it had remained a British colony. I side with the 27 per cent.

I was born post-Independence, but my research of the pre-Independence period shows that some God-awful things happened in Jamaica and the region as a whole — contrary to the rose-coloured picture which some among us have formulated and continue to spread.

The findings of the Moyne Commission, for example, showed that everything was not sugar and spice when 'Britannia ruled the waves'. The commission was given the broad mandate to "investigate social and economic conditions in Barbados, British Guiana, British Honduras, Jamaica, the Leeward Islands, Trinidad and Tobago, and the Windward Islands, and matters connected therewith, and to make recommendations". Why?

Massive strikes and riots in Jamaica and the region in the 1930s, alerted the British that all was not well in her colonies.

In summary, the Moyne Commission found that conditions in which people lived were horrible. It specifically pinpointed great deficiencies in access to and quality education for the masses, widespread and deplorable health conditions, frighteningly high rates of infant mortality, rampant juvenile delinquency, severely high levels of unemployment, and a mountain of related social and economic ills that blighted the self-worth and life chances of the vast majority of the populations. If one was not born white, owned property, and or had a wealthy benefactor, "yuh cornah dark", as we say in local parlance.

A critical and positive shift, however, started in 1944, when Jamaica attained full adult suffrage. The massive riots and strikes of the despondent and dispossessed majority black population during the 1930s forced an important move in the needle of British control. The riots and strikes helped to speed up moves towards self-determination.

Consider this too: "A new constitution was granted in 1944. It provided for an elected and nominated executive council responsible for determining the country's policy.

"The executive council was chosen from the party that won the majority in the Legislative Council. Members of the executive council were responsible for the different government departments, but power rested with the governor."

In 1953 changes were again made to the constitution, which provided for a chief minister and seven other ministers from the House of Representatives. Alexander Bustamante became the first chief minister. By 1957 self-government was achieved and the Executive Council was replaced by a Council of Ministers and the powers of the governor reduced. (National Library of Jamaica)

During the 1940s, and 50s, a nascent, black middle class with respect to access to increased economic opportunities started to take shape. However, most of the black population could not access the benefits because of limited access to education.

Seismic shifts in education

Former Prime Minister Edward Seaga, in an article in The Gleaner of July 27, 2007, summarised the great injustice of the education system in the 1940s and 50s this way: "Secondary schools at the time held their own entrance examinations which enabled children of parents with the means to 'buy' entry in the event of failure to gain access by merit. To overcome this, a Common Entrance Exam (CEE) was introduced in 1957, which would select successful entrants on merit only.

"The 1957 education policy declaration was aimed at improving the enrolment of students entering secondary schools, particularly among those who were unable to afford the fees."

This was a paradigm shift in access to education for the children of the majority. It was spearheaded by the then Norman Manley Administration with Florizel Glasspole as minister of education.

In the mentioned article, Seaga noted that: "Edwin Allen, minister of education in the Jamaica Labour Party [JLP] Administration elected in 1962, saw the problem of disproportionate entries which militated against children from poorer homes.

"To adjust this, Allen announced a 70:30 policy which reserved 70 per cent of the free places to secondary schools for students from primary schools who were successful in passing the minimum standard in the CEE; the remaining 30 per cent was allotted to students from private schools."

This was another monumental shift.

The Bustamante Administration of the 1960s with Edwin Allen ("Teacher Allen") commenced an unprecedented programme. I believe Edwin Allen was one of our best ministers of education.

Seaga, in the referenced article, also noted, among other things: "Edwin Allen introduced a sweeping plan for education reforms in 1966 which he entitled 'New Deal for Education in Independent Jamaica'." He announced an agreement with the World Bank to construct 50 — 41 were actually built — new secondary schools to augment the existing 47 schools at secondary level; 40 primary schools by the end of 1967, and an increase in the annual output of trained teachers from 350 to 1,000 by 1969. "This was the first project of the World Bank in secondary education anywhere. By more than doubling the number of secondary places, this would considerably increase the enrolment into secondary schools." (Seaga, The Gleaner, July 29, 2007)

The project was dogged by widespread allegations that the funds had been corruptly used in some instances. It was also severely criticised because, while the great injection of additional junior secondary schools immensely increased access to education by the majority, the children's schooling ended at grade nine. They came out of school, neither fish nor fowl, as we say in local parlance, meaning they were not adequately prepared for work nor further educational advancement.

Sadly, too, cost prevented many of the students who attended junior secondary schools from accessing the comparatively 'inferior' education that was offered. Over many years the junior secondary school system has been rebranded and restructured.

The Michael Manley Administration of the 1970s extended the life of the junior secondary schools by two years up to grade 11. Thereafter, there were called new secondary schools. In the late 1980s the upgrading of new secondary to high schools began under the Edward Seaga Administration, with an initial 16 schools.

That we have made very significant strides in education cannot be successfully contradicted. Those who continue to shed tears that the Union Jack was taken down in 1962, doubtless, are going to bellow, "So what is the big deal here, our education system is an absolute failure."

They should be mindful that: "Nine million adults in the UK are functionally illiterate, and one in four British five-year-olds struggle with basic vocabulary. Three quarters of white working-class boys fail to achieve the Government's benchmark at the age of 16." (The UK Guardian, March 3, 2019]. It might be helpful to some to know that up to the 1800s, around 40 per cent of males and 60 per cent of females in England and Wales were illiterate.

While many of us are supremely self-critical — and we have a duty to be — we must also simultaneously recognise a crucial reality: Jamaica is still a very young nation. We have made mistakes, but we have made major steps forward too.

Quality across the board is the great challenge of today. We need to realise quality across all the rungs of our education system, if Jamaica is going to attain her full potential.

Quality education is the vaccine which is going to help halt the rapid spread of social decline which is eating away at the very foundations of this society. Quality education is the great social equaliser which is going to halt the mushrooming of inferiority complexes pervasive among hundreds of our citizens. And it is quality education which is going to transform this country from a low-wage, low-out economy to a high-out, high-wage one.

The implementation of the recommendations of the report of the Jamaica Education Transformation Commission, chaired by Professor Orlando Patterson of Harvard University, is a road map which, I believe, can significantly help to rescue this country from the long-standing deficiencies in delivering quality education across the board.

Early this month the Education Transformation Oversight Committee (ETOC) was launched at Jamaica House. At the launch, Minister of Education and Youth Fayval Williams disclosed that work has been progressing strategically on the policies and institutions that fall under the Ministry of Education and Youth. She noted that most of the work is aligned with the recommendations from the Jamaica Education Transformation Commission (JETC) report. She said that a Higher Education Policy "has never been closer to completion than it is now".

If there is a silver bullet it is quality education for all. While quality across the board is largely missing at the early childhood, primary and secondary rungs of our education system, we must not lose sight of the fact that we have created many institutions that are known internationally for high quality. The creation of the Caribbean Examinations Council in the 1970s has proved to be an excellent barometer for measuring student performance in the secondary school system, locally and regionally.

I believe the creation of the Human Employment and Resource Training Trust/National Training Agency (HEART/NTA) was one of our most timely and sensible creations in the last four decades. Plaudits to Edward Seaga. HEART/NTA certification has local, regional and international currency and its model has been copied in numerous countries. Our teachers' colleges, nursing institutes, the University of Technology, Jamaica, and The University of the West Indies, plus dozens of other local institutions are adding significant value to the social, economic and political development of Jamaica and the region.

Our advances in education have convinced me that Jamaica made the right choice to lower the Union Jack in 1962. We are better off rowing our own boat. The seas have been choppy and I expect turbulent waves ahead, but we must not abandon ship.

Garfield Higgins is an educator, journalist and a senior advisor to the minister of education & youth. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or higgins160@yahoo.com.

Garfield Higgins

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