Errol Miller

Recently Dr. Rae Davis, President of the University of Technology, made reference to the UNESCO Education Index monitoring progress towards Education For All by the year 2000 and noted that Jamaica ranked number one among the 87 developing countries included in the survey. Since then both Mrs. Hyacinth Bennett, distinguished educator and NDM spokesperson on education, and Dr. Val Chambers writing in SPUNK a community newspaper published in Manchester have taken Dr. Davis and UNESCO to task with respect to Jamaica’s favourable rating. Being familiar with the UNESCO Index and having read both comments it is hard to refrain from attempting to throw some light on the subject.

The UNESCO Index employs five criteria. These are:  enrolment children of primary school age compared to the population of such children, the ratio of girls enrolled compared to boys, the completion rate of primary schooling, the literacy rate and the amount of money spent on primary education measured in units of Gross Domestic Product. In effect the Index measures participation in primary schooling, gender balance in the rate of participation, completion of primary schooling, quality as measured by literacy and the level of public provision for primary schooling.

Jamaica’s number one rating on the Index results from the fact that our low level of Government provision for primary education is associated with high levels of participation in primary schooling, excellent gender balance, high rates of completion of primary schooling and good quality as measured by literacy. Put another way countries with similar levels of participation, gender balance, completion rates and literacy rates to Jamaica spend much more on primary education than Jamaica.

The people that deserve the credit for this favourable portrayal of the effectiveness and efficiency of Jamaican primary education are the parents, children, and teachers not the Government. The effort of parents, children, and teachers far outstrip Government’s provision for primary education.

The validity of the UNESCO Index is underscored by other independent sources. The United States spends approximately US $3364 per child in elementary school. Barbados spends on average US $600 and Jamaica spends about US $120.  At the end of six years of primary schooling about 85 per cent of the children in the United States and Barbados are functionally literate indicating that Barbados is far more efficient and effective in deploying resources in educating its children than is the United States. Jamaica, on the other hand, is more effective than both in that while spending approximately 20 percent of what Barbados spends per child, 70 percent of Jamaican children are functionally literate at  the end of primary schooling. Put another way, with 20 percent of the resources of Barbados and 3.6 percent of that of the United States, Jamaican primary school leavers comes just 15 points lower than both of these countries on this basic measure of primary school quality.

What is highlighted is not that the quality of output of Jamaican primary schooling is the best in the world or even among developing countries. Clearly, the output from Barbados and several other countries is better. What is highlighted is that the Jamaican primary school system is utilising the very limited resources made available to it more effectively and efficiently than any other school system in the Third World and probably the entire world. With only $120 US spent on each child 70 percent of primary school students are functionally literate at the end of six years of primary schooling. Put another way, given the very limited provisions made for primary education in Jamaica one, cannot reasonably expect any better results. Those who say that the primary school system can do better on the current level of provision believe that it is possible to get something from nothing. Significant improvements can only come about by substantial new investments and support for public primary education.

Anyone who has studied the history of Jamaican and Caribbean education is aware of two of the fixed positions in discussing public primary education. The first position can be labeled the planter or upper-class posture which pours scorn on the quality of primary schooling condemns the teachers as inferior and claims that spending more money on primary schools is throwing good money after bad. This position has proven to be false in every generation since 1834. The second position can be labeled missionary advocacy which points to the wickedness of the ruling planter class in starving primary schools of the necessary provisions to employ and retain qualified teachers and for keeping the schools in an inferior state. Interestingly in this protagonist/antagonist dialogue both the detractors and the defenders of primary schooling agreed and unite concerning the uncritical proposition that the schools are inferior and are almost without any redeeming features.

Certainly, Mrs. Bennett and Dr. Chambers can be classified as contemporary “missionary advocates” seeking better provisions for the primary schools. Like their predecessors, they are very uncomfortable in admitting that anything good is happening in primary education lest the wicked oppressors take this as an excuse for letting unsatisfactory conditions remain unchanged. The unfortunate side of this approach is its failure to acknowledge the sacrificial efforts of many parents and teachers, and the efforts of many children to learn against all odds. Blanket condemnation of the conditions leads to a failure to give credit to the many parents, students and teachers who are doing so much with so little.

Dr Davis was right to highlight the positive side of Jamaican primary education. The UNESCO Index gives some clear indications of what needs to be done. It is only by appreciating the positive accomplishments and critically identifying the problem areas that appropriate strategies and actions can be devised and implemented. Advocacy is important but without careful analysis and thorough understanding of the issues involved, we could well squander the opportunities and resources available to really improve our primary education system.

January 29, 1997.

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