Author: Errol Miller
One of the good things at the present time is that there appears to be both the consensus and political will to make new investments in education. To those of us who have spent a lifetime working in education this is a welcome sign. The question that bothers me, however, is whether we are ready to make some radical and creative changes based on experience and the best available knowledge or whether we are going to simply go along with the impressionistic views of the drawing-room experts or continue to imitate the so-called more developed countries.
As a professional, I have learned that one of the worst things to do is to give advice where it is not asked for. But as a citizen and one who loves this country, I am unable to restrain myself in this regard, so I will give it anyway.
While our school system is in need of greater levels of financial resources to be devoted to it, not all its problems are due to lack of resources. Today I want to address one of those issues that is not a resource problem. It relates to how students should proceed from primary to secondary schooling and how secondary education should be conceived. This becomes a crucial matter when one reads that the Government is considering keeping all children in school until age 17 years, or thereabout.
Universal secondary education is a twentieth-century development pioneered largely by the United States through its system of public schools. Critical analysis reveals that this concept has produced as many problems as it has solved. From the perspective of equality, universal secondary education seems a great idea. All children are provided with an opportunity to receive secondary education. However, as great as this idea is it poses several challenges and problems. Two of the main challenges can be listed as follows.
First, it every child is guaranteed a place in secondary schooling, what is the role of achievement and merit in the movement from primary to secondary schools? Second, all children do not develop at the same rate hence all are not ready for secondary schooling at the same time neither will all achieve the goals of secondary education at the same age. When should students be transferred from primary to secondary schools? This leads to the further question, how should secondary education be conceived?
Implicitly, the feeder school system answers these questions in a very decisive way. Its practice is to transfer children attending primary schools in a particular locality to secondary schools in that vicinity without regard to achievement or merit. It transfers them at the end of Grade Six whether or not they are ready for secondary education. It is predicated on the notion of secondary schooling being related to geographic location and a stage in the human life cycle, adolescence, without establishing any notion of the meaning of secondary education in terms of learning and mastery of knowledge or skills or the fostering of outlooks and ideals. Secondary education is conceived in geographical, social and psychological terms with little regard for standards of education.
Looked at on a global basis the feeder school system has been a colossal failure for at least three reasons.
- It has failed to deliver on the promise of equity because it has trapped children in their localities of residence and all the disparities associated with differences in these locations.
- It has guaranteed promotion and advancement through the school system without requiring individual performance and therefore undermines striving, merit and achievement as the basis of success.
- It has brought both primary and secondary education into disrepute by the large numbers of illiterate and innumerate children transferred to secondary schools and the lowering of standards associated with this practice.
Jamaica bought into this feeder school system through the World Bank 1 Project introducing Junior Secondary Schools into our system of schooling. The feeder school system was retained when Junior Secondary Schools were transformed into New Secondary Schools and even now that New Secondary Schools are being renamed High Schools. The weaknesses of the feeder school system have been highlighted as it has operated alongside the selection system, where students are required to compete for entry into secondary schools on the basis of merit.
In my view, it is time to abandon and abolish the feeder schools system. Now that the Grade Six Achievement Test is going to replace the Common Entrance, only those children who have mastered the fundamentals of primary education should be transferred to secondary schools. With all its limitations merit is a superior basis on which to transfer students from primary to secondary schools, than geographical location and the availability of school places.
My proposal is simple:
- Use the National Assessment Programme, GSAT, to select the primary students who have mastered the fundamentals of reading, mathematics, science and social studies to be transferred to the 143 secondary schools in the island.
- Allow this transfer to take place anywhere between ages 10 and 14 years, that is, when the students are ready for the transfer.
- Give students at least five years of secondary schooling from the age of their transfer to secondary schools.
- Retain those students who have not master the fundamentals in All Age Schools, and specially equip the upper grades of these schools to deal with the remedial needs of those students. Transfer them to secondary schools when they have met the required standards.
In it within this context that the ROSE reforms will make educational sense, since a common curriculum delivered over the same amount of time is only practical and meaningful in a context in which children share some common features in terms of levels of attainment. The question is, are we ready to make a radical break from present practice?