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Author: Errol Miller

Mr. Chairman, ladies, and gentlemen a signal honour has been bestowed upon me in the invitation to deliver this Keynote Address at this national conference. Given the wide array of choice of speakers that was available to the organisers, to be chosen constitutes a special privilege. It is therefore with considerable fear and trembling that I embark upon the primary personal challenge of delivering the kind of keynote address that will provoke the conference to re-think and tackle this seemingly uncontroversial theme, Quality Primary Education: A National Challenge.

Why should the goal and task of providing quality primary education constitute a national challenge? Is it not elementary and obvious that the nation should seek, as a matter of priority, to deliver quality primary education to all its children? Why has this seemingly uncontroversial and highly desirable goal eluded the nation, for over 163 years? Indeed, since the establishment of mass education in 1834 providing quality education has presented a special challenge which persists to the end of the twentieth century. These questions highlight the contrast between the simplicity of the goal being proposed with the complexity of the factors that have frustrated its accomplishment for these many decades. If this conference is to avoid the pitfall of parroting platitudes, then we must look beyond the desirability of the goal to the hard-core realities that stand as obstacles to its implementation.

Mr. Chairman, ladies, and gentlemen in 1997 there is nothing mysterious or secret about the factors that must converge to promote and provide quality primary education. The prerequisites and pedagogy of excellence at the primary level are well known. They can be recited briefly as follows:

  • Healthy, well-nourished and motivated students who attend school regularly and are equipped with the necessary school materials.
  • Competent and committed teachers.
  • A conducive learning environment rich in the provision of teaching, learning and resource materials.
  • Good principals capable of mobilising teachers and communities to support the goals of primary education.
  • Parents and communities supportive of the work of the schools and children.

The question that arises is, if the factors that promote and provide good quality primary education are so well known, why is this not a reality in Jamaica today and why do they continue to present a national challenge?


A critical task in seeking answers to these questions is to define the problem. To begin we must understand that the issue is not merely one of quality primary education. Indeed, there is a consensus that education at all levels, if it is to be education, must be of quality. Further, the elites within the country have always made their own private arrangements to provide quality primary education to their children. Let us, therefore, call a spade, a spade, the national challenge has always been to provide quality public primary education. Put another way, the failure to date has been to provide, from the public purse, quality primary education for the children of the ordinary people of the country.

To delve further, we must recognise that deeply entrenched within public primary schooling is institutionalised racism. It is not possible to fully comprehend or explain the history of public primary education in Jamaica and the Caribbean, nor the present state of public primary schooling, without facing squarely the fact of institutionalised racism. It is historically true that public primary education was established for Black people in 1834 and since then has served this segment of the Jamaican population. It is also historically true that the parsimonious treatment of public primary education by the State in colonial times was predicated on assumptions of Black inferiority and the presumptuous of attempting to keep them in their ‘ordained place’, at the bottom of the social order.

Further, it is also historically true that in the post-war and post-independence periods more attention was paid to eradicating the quantitative dimensions of institutionalised racism in public primary education than to its qualitative features. Ironically, by making the public system bigger over the last 50 years, but leaving many of its qualitative features virtually unchanged, we have inadvertently expanded many of the institutionalised aspects of the racism of the past.

It is against this background that we must interpret the fact of the poor working conditions for principals and teachers in the majority of public primary and all age schools. In many primary and all age schools, the principals’ offices are little more than cubby-holes. In most schools, there are no staff rooms. In a few schools, there are no functioning sanitary facilities for teachers. Secretarial and clerical staff is a privilege reserved for a few and not part of the standard provision for the effective functioning of all schools. It is not a shortage of funds that have dictated these conditions so much as the persistent conception of public primary education as this has been shaped by the racial prejudices of the past. The unnerving fact is that the conception of public primary schooling predicated on racial prejudices has become so ingrained that it is routinely accepted as normal.

Permit me an aside concerning the issue of race and racism. I find much of the current debate on race and racism sterile and simplistic. Race is much more a social construction than it is a biological fact. It is this feature that explains why some White or light-skinned people can be conscious Black persons while some Black people can be White racists. Skin colour must not be confused with mindset and mentality. In dealing with the issue of institutionalised racism in public primary schooling in Jamaica we are not addressing the question of the skin colour of the holders of political power or of the teachers in the schools, but rather of the persistent and prevailing mindset and mentality that shape our perceptions, conceptions and outlook of public schooling at the primary level.

From this perspective, I am asserting that a qualitative shift in mindset and mentality towards public primary schooling is an essential and necessary pre-condition for providing quality primary education in the public system. In this regard, qualitative change and quality are inextricably bound if the national challenge is to be faced and met. It is imperative that we do not carry into the twenty-first century the mindset and mentality that has shaped public primary education in the nineteenth century and which has persisted with only modest alterations in the twentieth century.

Alfred North Whitehead, in his book on the philosophy of science entitled Conceptual Activity makes the point that if we are to predict the path of any system of electrons we must know the past history of that system as well as the dynamic forces that are operative on that system at the current time. Applying that paradigm to public primary schooling in Jamaica, it is not sufficient simply to identify institutionalised racism manifest in the neglect, parsimony, and under-provision of the State in the past, but it is critical to identify the dynamic forces at work at the present time.

The 1950s and the 1960s witnessed the greatest expansion in social mobility opportunities that has obtained in the history of the country. Every segment of the society benefited. The expansion in educational opportunity was no exception. Today the captains of industry, the political directorate including government and opposition, the holders of top posts in the civil service and in private bureaucracies, the leadership of schools and shapers of public opinion are overwhelmingly the products of this era of vastly expanded opportunities. Indeed, the governance of the society is now in the hands of this group which constitutes the new ruling class in Jamaica. To a great extent, we have replaced the British and expatriate ruling class of the colonial past.

The critical question that must be asked and answered is, apart from nationality and race is there any substantial difference between this new ruling class and their predecessors of colonial fame with respect to the perception, conception, and outlook on public primary education? There is a substantial case that can be put forward to the effect that there is no significant or substantial difference in the disposition toward public primary schooling of the expatriate ruling class of colonial fame and that of the current ruling class of Jamaican nationals. While the former was predicated and justified their behaviour on the basis of race and empire the latter are pre-occupied by considerations of class, status and the advancement of their own. In both instances, those disadvantaged are the marginal majority who go under a multiplicity of aliases: the little man, the small man, sufferers, the poor, the workers, peasants and several others.

The advocates of the position of no significant difference point to the following as evidence in favour of their posture:

Notions of superiority/inferiority still prevail as explanatory devices of prevailing conditions. The result is that the victims are blamed for their plight and position in society. Class superiority/inferiority has replaced racial superiority/inferiority. Notwithstanding this shift illiteracy and illegitimacy are still the major foundations on which social discrimination and disparity are justified. Poor quality primary education remains an indispensable argument in rationalising injustice in the society. To eliminate it the prevailing ideology of class superiority would be seriously jeopardised.

Public primary education is embraced largely for reasons of indoctrination with the never-ending pressure to introduce mind manipulating measures at earlier stages and ages in the educational process. If one is not careful these indoctrinating measures would begin from birth, if not before.

Public primary schooling is pressured to get children to behave and accept the status quo, rather than promoted as a means of discovering and developing their full potential as human being.

The cross purpose that prevails between the reasons why ordinary people send their children to school and the reasons for which the ruling class embraces primary education. The former participates in school system for reasons of liberation and escape from persistent poverty while the latter are much more concerned with societal control, social order and right attitudes.

Resistance and rebellion are still the principal means by which ordinary people express themselves concerning the state of affairs.

Advocates of this position of no significant difference point to the fact that the expatriate ruling class of colonial fame was not a unified or monolith group. That within that class there were always those who rejected the assumptions of superiority/ inferiority, saw education as a means of liberation, worked for the children of poor Black parents to achieve their full potentials as human being and were one with the ordinary folk in their social aspiration. However, this minority within the ruling class did not alter the over-arching and over-riding thrust of the class toward oppression and discrimination. Hence, the fact that the ruling class of Jamaican nationals is not unified and monolith does not in any way negate the general drift and posture which largely preserves the structures of the past under new management.


Those who would argue against the position that the colonisers are now internal and not external to the society, that nationalism and independence have simply substituted Jamaicans for expatriates without any fundamental changes in the structures and relationships within the society, that race and empire have been superseded by class, status and different forms of patronage, and that the society is still held together by force and coercion because of the absence of the legitimacy and authority that proceeds from just relationships, must contend with a several critical issues. They would need to show that a number of fundamental issues and challenges are being faced and met in present day Jamaica. Briefly these issues and the challenges and the evidence concerning action can be identified and described briefly as follows.

  1. Compensating for Poverty.

The Survey of Living Conditions of 1995 estimated that about 28 per cent of the population is living below the poverty line. The Caribbean Food and Nutrition Institute estimates that 30 per cent of the population is under-nourished. Ministry of Education, statistics on school attendance shows that average attendance in the public primary school system is just over 70 per cent, that is, about 30 per cent of the students attend school very irregularly. Studies of functional literacy at the end of primary schooling indicates that approximately 30 per cent of students leaving primary schools at the end of Grade Six are functionally illiterate. There is empirical evidence that link poverty and under-nourishment to both school attendance and achievement.

The Tropical Metabolism Research Unit of the Faculty of Medicine, UWI, has conducted several studies which have established links between poverty, health and nutrition, and primary school attendance and performance. Two studies of these studies are noted here. The first by Clarke

[1] was carried out in schools serving depressed populations in Kingston, while the second by Powell et al

[2] was carried out in schools in rural areas.

Clarke found that she could correctly place 87 per cent of the students in the schools into succeeding or failing groups without reference to their ability, the quality of instruction they received, the level of training of teachers who taught them or even their attendance. Powell et at found that 14.7 per cent of the children in the sample were suffering from anemia, 38.3 per cent were infected with Trichuris and 17.4 per cent with Ascaris infections, while 10.0 per cent came to school without having anything to eat. The study found that socioeconomic factors such as household possessions, possession of textbooks, exercise books and writing implements and uniforms quality along with health and nutritional variables such as height for age, anemia, Ascaris and Trichuris infections, and breakfast history all made unique contributions to the variance in school achievement. Like Clarke, Powell et al found that attendance was predicted by many of the same variables as achievement. The factors accounting for attendance were age, anemia, Ascaris infection, quality of housing, and the possession of textbooks and exercise books.

What these data suggest is that the existing public school system either has little or no capacity to compensate for the deficits of homes or that the existing strategies and programs designed to compensate for these deficits are not effective. Children who come from homes who can keep them reasonably well fed, healthy, attending school regularly and provide them with the necessary school materials at least meet the minimum criteria set for primary schooling. Those children who are from homes unable to meet these standards fall by the way side and leave school with major deficits in their education. The great inequities in the quality of public primary schooling generally reflect socio-economic disparities within the country. Put another way, public primary education as it is currently organised operates largely without a social conscience. Students in public primary schools meeting the standards and minimum criteria set for primary education are mainly children from middle-class homes. Public primary education confirms rather than compensates for the deficits of children coming form poor homes.

  1. Reducing and Eliminating Geographical Disparity

Over and beyond socio-economic disadvantage in Jamaica there are substantial geographical or regional disparities. Morrisey (1984) developed a geographical coding scheme for Jamaica which divided the country into the Kingston Metropolitan Area, the urban centres of Spanish Town, May Pen, Mandeville and Montego Bay, small towns and rural areas. I modified this scheme by separating the KMA into the depressed communities and middle-class areas, and the distinguished rural and remote rural areas. Both in 1990 and again this year I analysed primary and all age school performance data in relation to geographic location and the results were the same.

Student performance in different geographical areas was ranked as follows:

  1. The middle-class sections of the KMA.
  2. Urban centres: Spanish Town, May Pen, Mandeville and Montego Bay.
  3. Small Towns.
  4. Rural areas.
  5. Depressed KMA
  6. Remote Rural areas.
Interestingly this issue of regional disparity in Jamaica goes beyond class. When the performance of prep school students were analysed against location the same pattern was observed. The rank order among schools were:
  1. i) Kingston Metropolitan
  2. ii) Urban centres: Spanish Town, May Pen, Mandeville and Montego Bay.

iii) Small Towns.

  1. iv) Rural areas.

[There were no prep schools in remote rural areas or in the depressed areas of the KMA].

Put in plain terms the quality of primary education that children in Jamaica obtain is substantially affected by the geographical location of the schools they attend. In this regard, children attending schools in the depressed areas of Kingston and those attending schools in remote rural areas are at a considerable disadvantage.

  1. Inadequate Resources Committed to Primary Education

Only Haiti and Guyana spend less per capita on children in public primary schools. The annual per capita expenditure on primary education is approximately US$ 134. This compares with over US$600 in Barbados, over US$500 in Trinidad and Tobago and over US$300 in St Kitts and Nevis. This is not a recent or new phenomenon. This is a manifestation of the deeply entrenched neglect that has characterised Jamaican public primary education. That children can be educated on such a low amount and that there are not more serious problems than currently exists is remarkable and a tribute to the dedication of many primary schools teachers, parents and children.

Primary education during the 1990’s has claimed about a third of total public expenditures on education, although it has climbed to 37.4 percent in the 1996/97 budget. Once teacher salaries and related expenses (96 percent of the primary education budget) are deducted from the budget, not much more than US$ 5 per child per year remains for learning materials, utilities, maintenance of buildings and equipment, and other instructional inputs. Considering the very important role learning materials play in educational achievement, it is almost a miracle that 70 percent of students leave primary schools functionally literate.

  1. The Need to Modernise Instruction and Administration

The state of many primary and all age schools would indicate that they have missed the twentieth century. Equipment that are considered standard for schools in the twentieth century have not yet reached them. These include overhead projectors, televisions and VCRs, photocopiers and flip charts. There situation is highly reminiscence of the nineteenth century where the chalk board is the main instructional tool. The administration of schools is little better. Without secretarial or clerical help principals dutifully keep different log books that are routinely filled out in handwriting. In many instances typewriters have not yet made their entrance into the administration of primary and all age schools.

While there is the promise of at least one computer with Internet connections in every primary and all age school by the year 2000, this must not deflect attention from the more fundamental issue of the modernisation of instruction and administration of primary and all age schools to bring them in line with modern offices, entertainment, homes, factories and lifestyles.

  1. The Need for a Comprehensive System of Accountability

There can be little argument that the delivery of quality primary education requires a comprehensive system of accountability. However, much of the discussion of accountability have centred around making teachers the scapegoats for all the ills that beset the education system. At the invitation of the Ministry of Education in 1992, and after much consultation with stakeholders, I proposed a Model of Mutual Stakeholder Accountability.

The basic assumptions of this model is that school learning takes place in a complex of relationships between homes, communities and the Ministry of Education on the one hand and schools, teachers and students on the other. The homes and communities represent the context of schooling while the Ministry of Education represents the state with its policy directions and provisions. Homes, communities and the Ministry of Education all have an impact on the school with its intricate relationships and processes involving principal, teachers, and students. Outcomes from schooling is the product of direct and indirect impact of contextual, input and process variables.

In addition, in the complex of relationships actions are often reciprocal and not unidirectional. For example, parents and communities seek to influence state policies and provisions in education. Likewise, the State attempts to influence parents and communities in their engagement in the education system. While teachers are affected by the web of community relations and Ministry policy they are actors in communities and organise pressure groups to influence policy and provisions.

The essence of this Model of Mutual Stakeholder Accountability is that all stakeholders have important obligations that are critical to the effective functioning of the education system and to the delivery of quality education. Also, all stakeholders should account to each other with respect to their obligations. The Ministry of Education, representing the State should account for its policies and provisions. Parents and communities, representing civil society, should account for the manner in which children are presented and maintained in schools; principals and teachers, representing the teaching profession, should account for the learning and management processes employed in the schools. Students, the intended beneficiaries, should take responsibility for their own learning and also be held accountable for their use of the contributions of Ministry, parents, communities, and teachers.

Accordingly, the Ministry of Education should accept responsibility for input standards essential to the operation of schools; parents and communities would accept responsibility for context standards critical to the functioning of schools; principals and teachers would accept responsibility for process standards which are at the heart of the instructional process; and students would accept responsibility for their own learning as measured by output standards.

The proposed strategy is that all stakeholders groups should:

  • Affirm common standards by which primary education will be judged and ensure that these standards are known and understood by all groups in the society.
  • Allow schools the autonomy to devise their own means, methods, and measures by which to achieve the agreed standards.
  • Assess all schools periodically against the standards, by the use of recognized procedures and respected professionals.
  • Acknowledge those schools meeting all or most of the Standards.
  • Assist those schools falling far short of the standards.


The essence of my contention is that the delivery of quality public primary education in Jamaica has been constrained by mindset and mentality resulting from institutionalised racism that remained virtually unchanged; the machinations of contemporary class, status and patronage consideration of the new Jamaicanised and nationalised ruling class; failure of schools to compensate for poverty of homes; grossly inadequate allocation of resources; obsolete and outmoded institutional and administrative arrangements and practices; and the absence of a comprehensive, systematic and well structure mechanism of accountability.

From this perspective meeting, the challenges of delivering quality primary education is clear-cut. It involves the:

Emancipating ourselves from the mindset and mentality of institutional racism which classifies the majority of Jamaicans as inferior, lazy and lacking in ambition.

Extricating ourselves from pre-occupation with class, status and the moral morass of accepting responsibility only to provide for our own.

Targeting children from poor homes for special assistance and support.

Committing substantially more resources to the education of children in public primary and all age schools particularly to instructional and teaching materials and support infrastructures such as school libraries.

Addressing the historical neglect of rural schools, especially those remote areas and stemming the tide of the gap that is developing with respect to schools located in depressed urban centres.

Modernising both the instruction and administration of schools.

Establishing a system of Mutual Stakeholders Accountability within the framework of consensus about standards, the autonomy of schools, the periodic assessment of those standards.

But this issue have never been one of knowledge. We have always known what is required. The critical issue is about will. It is about the will of those who hold power and control at both the national and institutional levels. The question is whether the will to transform the society exists among those holding political power, those managing the public bureaucracy, those controlling wealthy and resources, those running schools, those guiding the JTA, and those generating knowledge at the University.

Notwithstanding the rhetoric of revolution, Only time will tell if a new day has dawned in Jamaica.

May 28, 1997

Professor Errol Miller has had a rather unique professional and public service career which has given him almost a three hundred and sixty-degree exposure within the education enterprise. He has been a high school science teacher; university lecturer in science education; college principal; university professor, chancellor of a university college, permanent secretary in the Ministry of Education; independent senator in the Parliament of Jamaica; a president of the teachers’ association; a chairman of the board of the state broadcasting corporation; chairman of the Electoral Commission of Jamaica; a researcher; an author; an international consultant; chairman or member of several school and college boards.