A lot has been written about the importance of the early years in setting the foundations for children’s education. Since Independence, prompted by initiatives promoted by the Jamaica Teachers Association and the Chamber of Commerce in the early 1960s early childhood education became a centre of attention. These initiatives were followed up by some outstanding support from the Bernard van Leer Foundation through the University of the West Indies which provided the framework for D. R. B. Grant’s pioneering work with basic schools. Later by UNICEF joined in the efforts and the Ministry of Education began to give this sector some financial support. Recently, both the Government and the Opposition have placed early childhood education at the forefront of policymaking in education.
As a result of past efforts, Jamaica has quite a large proportion of children enrolled in early childhood education, 84 percent of the four to six years old. This is respectable by any standard. One of the hopes of the emphasis on early childhood education was that illiteracy would be significantly reduced, if not eliminated, by the improved standard of education resulting from an earlier start. Up to the 1950’s the age of entry to primary school was age seven.
The fact of the matter is that illiteracy among primary school leavers has fallen between the 1960s and the 1990s. In the 1960s more than half the children leaving Grade 6 were functionally illiterate. The present figure is around 30 percent. While this figure is still disturbingly high, when one takes in account the amount of money spent on a child in primary education in Jamaica compared to the rest of the Caribbean and the Industrialised World, 70 percent functional literacy is very good returns on the investment made.
A lot has been written and said about what needs to be done to continue to improve literacy levels. The Ministry of Education has identified attendance as a key factor and is taking steps to improve attendance in primary schools.
A colleague, Dr. Sam Myers and I recently conducted a study of children who left primary schools functionally illiterate. Dr. Myers is the Reading Specialist and therefore concentrated on the technical aspects, I focused on some of the sociological factors related to the problem. We have investigated a host of different factors. We found that almost all the children had enrolled in some type of early childhood education. Hence enrolment in early childhood education by itself did not appear to be a factor explaining reading achievement at the end of primary schooling.
We did find, however, that attendance was an important factor. More specifically we found that attendance in the early years was particularly important. In other words, it not enrolment in the early years but attendance that is critical. One of the things we did was to trace the attendance of some children from they entered primary schools in Grade 1 until they left at Grade 6.We were not able to get the records for their attendance in Basic or Infant schools. We found that it was attendance in Grades 1 and 2, the earliest grades for which we had data, that was most closely related to the children’s reading achievement at the end of Grade 6.
This finding makes good common sense. It is in Grades 1 and 2 that the fundamentals of reading are taught. It would appear that children who miss out on this instruction do not recover from the gaps created in their knowledge. Our advice to the Ministry in mounting its campaign to improve attendance, and to schools that have been making strenuous efforts to improve literacy levels among their students, is to concentrate most of their efforts on improving attendance in the early grades. Identify those children in Grades 1 and 2 who are attending irregularly and target them and their parents in the programs planned. It would also appear prudent for schools to do some diagnostic testing among children in grades 3 to 6 to identify the basic reading skills they may have missed.
The point is that what is needed to improve our current level of educational achievement is not a wholesale revamping of everything. Precise problems need to be identified, data gathered that would enlighten us on possible ways to attack the problem and then targeted efforts in the areas most likely to produce the best results.
June 20, 1998