Fri | Dec 13, 2019

Editorial | All schools deserve excellence

Published:Monday | December 2, 2019 | 12:17 AM

The Government’s plan to build, with Chinese support, six schools specialising in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) is, on the face of it, exciting, but Prime Minister Andrew Holness has to make a better case than he has, thus far, as to why these institutions will need their own law, rather than operating under what exists for other schools.

Or, to put it bluntly, Mr Holness just has to make a case. For, up to now, he hasn’t really offered one. The risk the prime minister runs in the absence of better particulars is giving the impression that his intention is to create a three-tiered education system with elite STEM schools at its apex and the continuation of the old bifurcation between the so-called traditional high schools and the rest.

The prime minister, of course, is right about the need for a focus, at this time, on education in the STEM fields. The world is on the cusp of a new, transformative phase of development, driven by artificial intelligence and the connection of things and processes to the Internet – the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution. And it is happening at a time when many countries, mostly in the developing world, including Jamaica, continue to lag in the digital revolution that underpinned the previous transformative phase of global production.

“If we are going to survive as a people in this new age of technology, we now need to make the investment in a new kind of education for our children,” Mr Holness said at his party’s annual conference a week ago.

It is in that context that the STEM schools are planned, although it isn’t clear at what level they will be pitched, whether at the primary or secondary phases of education, or both.

What the prime minister did say, though, is that as academies having to “adhere to the highest standard of excellence”, the new schools can’t operate under the existing Education Act.

His clear implication is that the current law, which sets the operational standards for nearly 1,000 early childhood, primary and secondary schools that accommodate around half-million students and more than 20,000 teachers, is inadequate for what will be expected of the six institutions, or so-called schools of excellence.

The basic problems of Jamaica’s education system – or, rather the symptoms therefrom – are very well aired. Up to a third of students leave the primary system ill-prepared for secondary education. At high school, performance in critical subjects is poor. Less than half of the students, not counting the students who are screened out of the tests, pass math at the Caribbean Examination Council’s (CXC) Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) exams. No more than a fifth of students at the secondary level annually pass five, or more, CSEC subjects at a single sitting, thereby qualifying to matriculate to university.

Yet, of nearly 170 government secondary schools in Jamaica, perhaps half could be branded as average or better, with very reasonable outcomes. Perhaps the top 25 could compete with good schools globally. The best-performing secondary schools are usually the ones to which the better-prepared primary-school children have been streamed, and whose better-off parents are able to shore up the Government’s per-capita spending on schools. These schools also tend to have good leadership.

It is a system that produces what many people, including the political Opposition, these days, call apartheid education.

OBVIOUS QUESTION

An obvious question, especially given the pockets of excellence in education, is whether it is the law, the Education Act of 1980, or policy weaknesses, including skewed funding, that produces the failures that bedevil the system.

We believe that the problem is mostly the latter. And weak leadership. But to the extent that the existing law doesn’t allow, as Mr Holness suggests, for the accountability that breeds excellence, it should be upgraded for all schools, not just the few.

The time that it would take to overhaul the existing legislation isn’t, in our view, a credible constraint. It will require upwards of two years to build, furnish and staff these STEM academies. That is sufficient time for new legislation, covering all schools, to be crafted, passed and promulgated.

Excellence is deserved by all.