Understanding the Crisis in Jamaica’s Education System and Shaping the Call to Action

There is a management dictum which says, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t management it”.  Put differently one cannot solve a problem unless and until the scope of the problem is determined.

Jamaica’s education system faces a major, life-time crisis which was bad before the COVID-19 pandemic and has been severely exacerbated by the pandemic. With the recent resumption of face-to-face classes, the gaping holes in our education system have been exposed. 

The Jamaica Teachers’ Association (JTA) recently conducted a survey among its members to understand their experiences and perspectives following the full resumption of face-to-face classes. The survey had a sample of 345 teachers, 54% of whom teach at the primary level, 28% at the secondary level, 14% at the Early Childhood level, and the remainder at tertiary and Special Education levels.

Two findings from the survey stood out most for me, related to:

  • Teachers’ description of students’ perceived learning loss, relative to level of expected loss
  • Teachers’ assessment of the demands of teaching during the pre-pandemic era relative to face-to-face resumption.

In relation to (a), 81% of teachers said this was greater than expected, and in relation to (b), 86% said the demand is greater.

What these findings show is a crisis of astronomical proportions, for at one level the expected challenge is deemed greater than anticipated, and at the other, teachers feel a sense of their capacities being overwhelmed.  This reality could have been avoided or be less daunting, if the right set of actions were taken in a timely manner, but many were not.  It does not, however, make sense we go over what might have been done. Thus, the focus of this article will be on what we may do now.

In order to place in context what we may do now, it is helpful that we revisit the state of our education system pre-pandemic.

Data on Jamaica’s Education System Pre-pandemic

In an article I published in the Journal of Leadership Education in 2018, exploring the role of respect in teacher-student relationships, I framed the problem using data, including the following:

  • The 2015 National Education Inspectorate (NEI) report which showed that students’ attainment in English and Mathematics was below the targets set by the Ministry of Education in 78% of the 953 schools inspected. 
  • Students’ progress was rated as unsatisfactory in 51% of schools
  • Teaching in support of students’ learning was unsatisfactory in 44% of schools.
  • Overall, 55% of the 953 schools were rated as ineffective.

In the said 2018 article, I cited a Ministry paper presented in Parliament in May 2013 which described issues facing the education sector, and summarized the data on incidents reported in the 2012/13 academic previous year, showing:

  • 915 fights
  • 160 robberies
  • 3 murders reported
  • 1,288 weapons were seized, including 431 knives and 486 pairs of scissors
  • School resources officers arresting 201 students, cautioned 2,361 and monitored 1,109.
  • Illegal substances seized on 164 occasions. 
  • A 2015 Child Month report which showed that between the academic years 2009–10 and 2012–13 there were 4,973 expulsions and tens of thousands of suspensions.
Inspector Ishmale Williams and team within the St Catherine North Police Division conducted a search last week at a school in the division. These items pictured were taken from students., (photo credit Jamaica observer)

Not in new territory

With those kinks of statistics from over a decade ago, the murders, seizure of weapons, and other horrific events reported since the resumption of face-to-face schooling, do not represent anything new. Rather they illustrate how big a problem we have on our hands, as a country, and how urgently we must, led by the government, move to address these problems.

While I was writing this article, one of my UWI students, who is a teacher at a Primary School, sent me a WhatsApp message which read:

“About to raise the white flag. Two students – girls (one 10 and the other 9) caught in the bathroom having sex. Others are planning a meet up after school for sex later. The numbers of fights are up significantly.  I have started to lose my voice”

I am sure this story could be multiplied dozens of times across the system.  We have a problem.

Urgent action needed

I issued a tweet sometime about March 28, urging the government to move posthaste to provide support to schools by deploying more social workers and trained education aides.  (I have been making this appeal for at last four years).  A government blogger responded saying that provision was already made in this year’s budget.  I was a bit taken aback, wondering to myself how I missed that, so I called a senior officer in the Ministry of Education for information on this initiative.  The call lasted two minutes. The officer explained that what was announced was an existing programme that has been in place for years. Sigh.

The evidence, then, is that what has been in place is either not enough or not working effectively; not even the school behaviour change programme which the Prime Minister and Minister of Education recently lauded.  Both the policy of providing schools with some resources to enable them to employ social workers, as well as the behaviour change programme are necessary, but are not new, and not enough. Much more needs to be done, now. 

I suggest / reiterate the following:

  • Adopting the 1970’s model of Primary Healthcare under which Community Health Aides were deployed to support families and where Health Centres were located more closely to densely populated areas. The model for education would involve the deployment of university and college graduates to communities, having been given additional training in Social Work and pedagogy and who would be tasked with providing students with mental, psychological, and intellectual support, nurturing and guidance. In addition to visiting homes, these Community Education Aides would be located at the Learning Centres and would be accessible to their students.
  • Equipping homes with internet connectivity and government bearing the cost of ensuring that all homes (with children of school age) have free access to the internet. (This was proposed in the PNP’s 2020 Manifesto). Of course, the Learning Centres would have internet.
  • Recruiting and deploying child psychologists in large numbers at a ratio that enables the psychologist to engage in proactive engagements, working alongside and supporting school Guidance Counsellors and Community Education Aides.
  • Resuscitating formal learning opportunities for parents (who are reading and reasoning below a certain level) and making these learning opportunities available online as well as, in a limited way face-to-face.  This would mean translating the life-long learning programme into a grassroots application.
  • Upgrading the four-year teacher-preparation programme to include deeper content in child guidance, social work, family support, and conflict management.

We cannot, not afford this

Jamaica currently spends ten times on national security compares to what it spends on education, in capital expenditure. Thus, for every dollar spent on equipment and upgrading of the education sector, ten times that amount is spent on policing hardware.  Over the last four or five budget cycles, the amounts are $2B vs $20B.  We cannot continue in this vein and unless we begin to invest heavily in programmatic and special education initiatives, along the lines proposed above, we will continue to spend more on military and police hardware and continue to see violence in our schools and on the streets.  We simply cannot, not afford to make these investments.

1 thought on “Understanding the Crisis in Jamaica’s Education System and Shaping the Call to Action”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *