Last Saturday I had the good fortune to travel to New York in the splendid company of Mr Lloyd Bryan, Principal of Calabar. On Sunday we attended a Gala Banquet put on by the Calabar Old Boys Association, New York Chapter, at which the Prime Minister spoke on the subject of education and its critical importance to the future of Jamaica. The Banquet was well supported not only by Calabar Old Boys by quite a wide cross-section of the Jamaican community in the New York area. The primary focus of the event was raising funds to help the school.
On the flight on Saturday, I counted more than 30 unaccompanied children, appropriately labelled and lined up by Air Jamaica, that were on their way up to the New York area. Both Mr. Bryan and I got curious about who these youngsters were. As soon as we heard them speak it became obvious that they were of Jamaican origin. I sat beside one of the little girls and took the opportunity to find out a bit more. She lived in the New York area but was going to a primary school in St Ann. So were the rest of these unaccompanied minors. They are attending a broad variety of schools in different parts of Jamaica and at different levels of the education system. These kids were going home for Christmas, to return to school here in Jamaica for January.
A few months ago on another of my trips abroad, the JUTA driver taking me to the airport had a sticker prominently displayed across the dashboard. It said something like “My child is an A student”. It was from a high school in Brooklyn, New York. When I asked the driver about it, he explained that his daughter had just graduated with honours from that high school and that he had gone up to the graduation where he got the sticker. Further, all seven students who had gained scholarships to go to College from that high school had come from Jamaica. The Graduation Day at the school was declared Jamaica Day. He explained that his daughter had left Jamaica about three years ago.
At a function that I attended a few weeks ago a friend told me that her 17-year-old daughter had been awarded quite a lucrative scholarship to attend well-known university in the United States. I know a few persons contracted by US colleges and universities to recruit students from Jamaica.
What is being highlighted by here is the two-way traffic, or trade, that already exists between Jamaica and North America with respect to education. Products of our school system are being recruited by different means to higher education opportunities there. Likewise, some Jamaican parents in North America are sending their children back to Jamaica for their schooling.
These realities fly in the face of a lot that is said about education in Jamaica today. The Jamaican education system is spoken of far more as a liability than an asset. These examples seem to suggest that there are at least some schools, or some aspects of Jamaican education, that constitutes a resource that is underappreciated and not sufficiently recognized.
It would be interesting to find out how much of the remittances sent home by Jamaican living abroad is related to education in one way or another. What is sure is that education remains a strong link between Jamaican overseas and Jamaicans at home. Some are seeking to give back, while others want to continue to benefit from what is provided locally.
What is clear to me is that there are very good investment opportunities if we begin to take education very seriously and begin to perceive it in a different light. For example, there are many small schools in rural Jamaica that do a very good job but are not recognised for the job they do. They have excess capacity when school buildings and school enrolment are compared. There are several guesthouses that are not doing well in competing with the large hotels, particularly with the all-inclusive’s. What if some of these small schools and guesthouses were to come together and market their services to Jamaican desiring to send their children here for education but have no immediate family to board them? Would the Ministry of Education allow these schools some latitude with respect to cost recovery through the fees they charge? Would the Ministry allow some communities to invest in the schools, in their locale, as means of generating jobs and revenue through the educational services rendered?
It is one thing to talk of the knowledge society in the abstract. It will be another thing to create it in concrete and saleable services. As usual, the people seem to be ahead of the policy makers and planners.
December 14, 1999