Solving the education crisis

Grace McLean hasn’t told us anything that we didn’t know, except that coming from her, the statistics seem more frighteningly grim. McLean is the permanent secretary in the education ministry but, she can argue, of relatively recent vintage.

So, she inherited the situation of which she spoke last week at the opening of a Sangster’s book store in Portmore, St Catherine.

Fewer than half of the children in the early childhood system and readying for primary education are prepared for the transition. Their motor skills are not optimally attuned and they lag in their ability to respond to various instructions.

At the primary level, at grade four, below 50 per cent of the cohort masters the basic elements or numeracy or literacy.

Meanwhile, at grade six, just over half of the 11- and 12-year-olds who are to transition to secondary education are ready.

Further, of a cohort of 50,000 who should graduate from the secondary system annually, 40 per cent of them – or 20,000 – are screened out of the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate and similar exams that test their readiness for the world of work or higher education.

Of the 30,000 students, or 60 per cent, who write these exams, no more than half receive acceptable grades, and only about a fifth pass up to five subjects at a single sitting.

Such statistics represent an absolute disaster for a country lagging in development and with an ambition of achieving First World status in 18 years.

Knowing the problems is one thing. The more important issue, though, is what policymakers like Ms McLean will do about them.

This newspaper does not presume that the solution to this crisis is simple, or that there is any single approach. It has to be addressed on multiple fronts and, given the shortage of available resources, policy makers will not only be faced with difficult choices but have to insist on value for taxpayers’ money. That will also mean holding people accountable.

For instance, while we welcome the plan to recruit 200 additional teachers for placement in basic and infant schools, the project’s price tag of $120 million will keep spending on early childhood education to under three per cent of government spend on education. On the other hand, the tertiary sector accounts for 15 per cent of the education spend.

We believe that in the current situation, the education budget ought to be rebalanced, diverting some of the resources from the tertiary system to the early childhood sector to create the necessary foundation to support later learning. More creative financing arrangements can be structured for tertiary students, including, we feel, eliminating bureaucracy and leveraging the available resources to deliver loans more efficiently and cheaply via the private sector.

Additionally, we have to end the pretence of being able to afford ‘free’ tuition at the secondary level, but with appropriately sensitive means testing for those who genuinely cannot afford to pay.

McLean and her boss, the education minister, Ronald Thwaites, even as they offer carrots, will have to be tough in holding teachers and principals accountable. Robust systems of performance-based remuneration should be instituted and bad teachers and failing schools identified for what they are. Where performance lags, the school receiver must be at the ready.

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