September 13, 2022
The haemorrhage of teachers, nurses, doctors and any other group of professionals reminds us of how connected Jamaica is to the United States of America (USA). That country has been losing its teachers and nurses, largely because of low salaries, very poor working conditions, and an atmosphere of disrespect. In addition, the teachers in the USA are now facing over-reach of narrow-minded politicians who are banning books and imposing limits on curricula. The same bizarre political processes they lead have brought undue pressure on the health system and disrespect for the health workers as well. Our teachers and nurses are seeing opportunities where their USA counterparts see intolerable working conditions and disrespect. What a comment on the conditions of work that our teachers and nurses face in Jamaica! The conditions here are so bad that they are eager to grab what others are discarding.
Rethinking education of the youth
What appears to be a deepening crisis for our education system on the eve of the new school year must have some opportunities for re-thinking how we help our young people to tap into and hone their talents to prepare themselves for a rapidly changing world. Even our former Prime Minister Bruce Golding, apparently in reflection, grades the education system as a failure since Independence. Mark you, he took up a leadership position in politics shortly after Independence, having spent 5 years at St. George’s College in its heyday when its students won the Jamaica Scholarship for 6 consecutive years amid overall examination results that far exceeded every other high school. So, he knew what a top-class school was, and from there he went to Jamaica College for 6th form, with which he identifies to the point where the general impression is that he spent his high school years there.
Following a degree at The University of the West Indies (The UWI), he entered politics at a very high level of leadership, and after some twists and turns, became Prime Minister, only to be twisted and turned out after a brief stint. Nevertheless, he was among a small group of Jamaicans exercising governance of Jamaica for many decades and must therefore share some of the responsibility for our achievements and some of the blame for our failures.
It is hard to believe that with his background, the erudition now attributed to him by the general population, the stream of reports on the education system that has flowed almost continuously, and the quality of public discourse, that he did not know all along that the education system was failing. Maybe behind the scenes he was at least participating in efforts, however faint, to stem the rot. Maybe he was too busy doing what he was doing to pay much attention. But, and I stand to be corrected, his reputation lies elsewhere than the fight for quality education.
I was hoping he would offer some guidance to the Honourable Fayval Williams, current Minister of Education to see the opportunities through the gloom of the crisis. Maybe the time has come when we have to pay our teachers better, if we are to retain even the ones now being trained. He could have a word or two with his protégés who are in power and who determine the priorities of public expenditure. To the rest of us, they will answer why it cannot be done. On the other hand, they might be open to discussions with him on how teachers can be better paid. Inevitably, the nurses and the police will justifiably demand the same. And if they come up with even a modest proposal, he may have to help them to sell the case to the policy overlords to whom Jamaica is indebted.
Optimizing existing resources
A call from him to improve the quality of graduates from the teachers’ colleges might spark a collective re-thinking of the curricula in those colleges to attract stronger applicants and better equip the students. Maybe four decades ago, the incentive structure shifted in favour of management studies and attracted both potential teachers and trained teachers away from the classroom. So, reforming the curricula will have more meaning the greater the potential benefits students see for themselves upon graduation.
There is now a category of master teacher. If the master teacher leads a team of teachers in several schools, it could extend high quality instruction to more students. Surely, he could use his former PM status to get the Ministry of Education to think through expanding the master teacher system and extending its reach with hybrid – online and face-to-face – instruction to fill some of the gaps left by migration. It will also help to reduce the inequalities of instruction across schools which will encourage social and economic inclusiveness.
From him, the Minister Williams would accept my friend’s suggestion to re-think the curricula to reduce the number of courses to be taught and to synthesize fields of knowledge to overcome the compartmentalization and move toward a wholistic learning experience. This would reduce the need to stretch quality teaching resources thin. Indeed, there is a lot students can learn via the internet, especially with guidance, and encouraging research into subject areas that are not taught would help to shift the balance from teaching to learning in the education processes.
It will take piloting, and several years of trial and error, but the prospects of moving the education system from failing to passing, and eventually to excellence warrants trying new approaches. There are many examples around the world that are worthy of review to see how aligned they are with the goals we set for our education system, and what aspects are adaptable to our reality. Equally important, we can tap into the vast reservoir of experience that Jamaican education professionals have acquired both here and abroad.
Now is the time for the former PM to lead the reform of education having identified the signal failure since Independence. He should convene a cabinet of forward-thinking people – not fuddy-duddy “educators” with archaic views of depositing knowledge into uncritical, obedient minds sitting in regimented classrooms. Now is the time to entertain innovative thinkers who are focusing on the future, both here and in the Diaspora, in an ongoing consultation to move away completely from the colonial ideas of education. They should be challenged to come up with content and methods to make learning attractive to the young and ensure that the education experience equips them with skills and affords opportunities to enhance their creativity.
In the dialogues with his protégés, the now-reflecting former PM can point out that a vibrant education system is ultimately the best anti-crime strategy and get them to shift resources from weapons and militaristic strategies into learning infrastructure in all its manifestations. Surely, the relevant ministry would see rays of hope that its strategy of wellness to deal with individual and public health will have more traction in a better educated young population.
Towards a revamped education system
It is now more than 40 years since our leaders, of which the former PM was an important one, have been promising economic growth with strategies of austerity imposed on the working and the non-working poor. The flight of the teachers and nurses and other professionals suggests that the slogan, “the poor can take no more” has really come to pass. A re-balancing -forgive the vulgarism – of priorities from paying debt and protecting profits to providing quality education has more potential to stimulate an inclusive economic growth that is necessary for Jamaica to become “the place of choice to live, work, raise families and do business”. Earning the number 2 ranking in the list of countries suffering brain drain is evidence that Jamaica is not now that place.
A more educated young workforce requires a revamped education system – now. There is still a leadership role for former PMs in the vacuums left by a governance system that was never designed for the needs of Jamaica’s development and becomes more irrelevant as the new challenges emerge. Witness how poorly the system performed in the face of the pandemic and how woefully unprepared the country, its citizens and their institutions are for the ravages of extreme weather in the era of rapid climate change. Similarly the governance system has not even managed to contain the old social problems of poverty, poor housing, crime, injustice, public ill-health, and yes, insufficient and inadequate education.
The vacuum of leadership in education is an opportunity to atone for neglect and/or to continue the fight to improve the quality of education that went unnoticed.
Dr Michael Witter is an economist who was employed by The University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona for more than 40 years. Since his retirement from The UWI, he has been consulting on a full-time basis. He has also served as visiting professor at several USA universities. Dr Witter has consulted with several international and regional organizations, agencies of the Government of Jamaica, private companies, and organizations of civil society over the past 30 years. His research interests surround policy formation, assessment and evaluation, particularly as it relates to economic growth, and development policy and programmes of both the Government of Jamaica and some of its international partners.