'There can be no new Jamaica without education'Tuesday, October 12, 2021
BY GARNET WEIR
“There can be no new jamaica without education.” Thus spoke Alexander Bustamante as he addressed the opening function of the Junction Health Centre in St Elizabeth in June 1953. The statement was true then. It is true now.
For over 80 years, the name Alexander Bustamante has resonated through three generations of Jamaicans. It is the name of a man, a national hero, who has been portrayed as a warrior for the Jamaican working class, providing them with a voice at the workplace, restoring their dignity, and giving to them a greater sense of selfhood while securing for them improved job security, wages, and benefits.
The riotous events of 1938 and their aftermath, his formation of the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (BITU) to champion the rights of workers, his fearless confrontation with the military in 1940 during which he bared his chest as if to dare them to shoot him, and his subsequent detention for 17 months are common areas of focus and folklore in any discussion of Bustamante.
That he was charismatic is well known. The people's love for him was best expressed in their singing “We will follow Bustamante till we die.”
Frankly, he has done a lot but, in any current discussion of Bustamante, what is usually given emphasis is his role as a labour leader. Very seldom are his administrations' many achievements in governance and institutional-building discussed. It is as though he was a labour leader only — full stop. The broad spectrum of his administrations' achievements in government and governance is therefore ignored. This is unfair to him and to his memory as a national hero.
This National Heroes' Day period of celebrations should be a period of reflection on the contribution of our heroes. This year, I wish us to revisit our view of Sir Alexander Bustamante and, in doing so, begin by looking at just one area of his administrations' governance — education — for which he has been given no credit.
What then, one may ask, did his administrations achieve in education?
The broad answer is that they built a great number of primary schools to provide educational access to thousands of unregistered students. They created policy to provide access to secondary education for thousands of primary schoolchildren, and they laid the foundation for the building and expansion of teacher training institutions' capacity to supply the teachers for these purposes.
The noted economist Dr Frederick Benham, at section 224 of his 1945 economic report to the Jamaican Government, remarked that, “The child population of present school age (7 to 15 years) is about 255,000. The existing elementary schools can accommodate only 120,000 without overcrowding. A large number of children attend only irregularly and a considerable number do not attend at all. This is a very unsatisfactory state of affairs” ( The Gleaner, March 8, 1945).
What Dr Benham did not mention, however, was that, even the 120,000 registered primary school students were attending schools of which the majority had few truly qualified teaching staff, schools that were in dilapidated conditions, schools that provided little or no playing fields, had no canteen facilities, and, particularly in the rural areas where suitable residential accommodations were scarce, were singularly unattractive to qualified teachers. In addition, most of these primary schools were on premises owned and operated by churches, which had little or no financial capacity for maintaining or improving them.
Bustamante's Administration, which took office in January 1945, attacked the problem frontally. His Government's 1946/1947 Ten Year Development Plan made significant provisions for expanding the capacity of primary schools. And they delivered. By December 31, 1953 they had completed 179 new primary schools and 84 open-air supplementary classrooms ( The Gleaner, February 20, 1954).
On his return to office in April 1962, the focus of Bustamante's Government on the building of primary education remained. By February 1967 his party could boast that his Government had built, in four years, by December 31,1966, 126 primary schools and that a further 40 schools were scheduled for completion by September 1967. 84 teachers' cottages had also been built to support these schools in recognition of their difficulty in attracting qualified teachers to their rural locations ( The Gleaner, February 3, 1967).
The numerous primary schools that Bustamante's administrations built created a virtual revolution in governmental school ownership and administration.
Prior to 1945 most primary schools were owned and operated by churches which obtained a limited grant from Government for their operation. Most of such schools lacked suitable classrooms, playing fields, adequate culinary facilities for preparation of school lunches or cottages for teachers in rural areas. Bustamante changed all that by the widespread construction of over 179 government-owned and -operated schools by December 1953 and a further 166 between 1962 and 1967. The significance of this in the big picture is better appreciated when one recognises that, at least, 345 primary schools, or about 40 per cent of the entire current stock of primary schools, were built under Bustamante's administrations.
Another fundamental educational policy direction was his administrations' approach to the allocation of free places under the Common Entrance Examination. The Norman Manley Administration had, in 1957, instituted a Common Entrance Examination to determine which children would receive government-paid or -assisted free places in approved high schools. The placements were entirely based on merit. The observed experience, however, was those children from the mostly middle and upper socio-economic classes, who had received their kindergarten and primary education in preparatory schools or were attending grant-aided secondary schools, were receiving a disproportionate number of the free places.
In contrast, the great majority of primary school children suffered from levels of social and economic deprivation and usually did not start their primary school education until age seven. Disadvantaged by the lack of a stimulating intellectual environment, disadvantaged by social and economic conditions, disadvantaged by four years of schooling, or less, disadvantaged by inadequate facilities with overcrowded classrooms and disadvantaged by a lower quality of teaching, these students naturally found it difficult to compete on equal terms with students from private and grant-aided schools. In the 1961 examination only 1.1 per cent of the 84,000 primary school age cohort got a free place, in contrast to 35 per cent from the preparatory school and 33 per cent from the grant-aided secondary schools. It was inequitable and it was unjust. Bustamante would have no more of it.
Such a free place system, if continued, would further entrench the significant class and economic divisions in the society. It would keep much of the poor, permanently poor and put a ceiling on the capacity of their children to throw off the shackles of poverty and rise to fulfil their destiny. His Government, therefore, established a new policy for the 1963 school year and onwards that, at least 70 per cent of all students receiving government free places from the Common Entrance Examination must come from the primary schools.
That 70/30 free place decision has been a significant catalyst for positive social and economic upliftment for thousands of children from households of the poor. Many have used it to become current day senior administrators and professionals in a wide array of disciplines both here in Jamaica and abroad.
Bustamante's administrations' achievements in expanding many schools, building over 345 new schools and introducing the 70/30 free place policy, are among the strongest indicators of his commitment to creating better social and economic prospects for the children of the poor and the poor themselves through education.