Author: Errol Miller
Both the Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister have put out their proposals for the development of education. Each proposal has elements of considerable merit. While there are differences between them, both proposals have common elements. One such common element is that of promoting school attendance. Indeed, this is a major weakness of primary education and one that must be tackled.
The Government strategy is to set a target of 85 percent and work toward it through innovations that have the potential to inspire attendance. The Leader of the opposition proposes compulsory attendance as the solution. I wish to comment on both proposals from the perspective of the best available knowledge that we have on the subject of primary school attendance along with my personal views on the voluntary versus the compulsory routes to ensuring regular school attendance.
In Jamaica, primary school attendance is assessed on children being in school for two sessions each day, morning and afternoon. Ninety percent attendance for the week means that the child missed one morning or afternoon session on one day during the week. This method of calculating attendance is more rigorous than assessing attendance on a one per day basis, where if the child was present for any part of the day they would be marked present.
We know that attendance varies considerably between schools. There are primary and all age schools with an average attendance of over 90 percent while some other schools barely make it over 50 percent. We also know that Friday attendance, particularly in some rural areas, is generally poor and drags down the average to quite an extent.
When the various research studies on attendance are reviewed, three main factors seem to account for most of the irregular attendance. These are:
- Poverty, many parents find it very difficult to provide the wherewithal to send their children to school.
- Quality, where parents, particularly poor ones, have serious doubts about the quality of education being offered by the schools their children are attending, attendance suffers.
- Performance, it the child does not appear to be doing well in schools some parents tend to saddle that child with household and economic chores.
The worse school attendance occurs where these three factors overlap. Parents doing their own private rate of return analysis come to the conclusion that for the low quality of education their child is receiving and the minimal progress the child is making it is not worth the sacrifice to send that child to school regularly. Such limited resources that the family possesses are then concentrated on the child that is doing better, especially if that child is attending a high school.