Secondary education: our main challenge

Published: Sunday | July 22, 2012 Comments 0

Don Robotham, Guest Columnist

Below is a lightly edited keynote address at the University of Technology 50th Anniversary Symposium on the Jamaican educational system, delivered Thursday, July 19.

I am optimistic about the future of Jamaica. It never fails to strike one how much talent there is in Jamaica and the immensely positive qualities of the Jamaican people. It is the quality of the people which makes Jamaica special, and it is these qualities which have carried us through these first 50 years of Independence and which, I believe, will also ensure that the next 50 years are far more productive and beneficial.

At the same time, I have to state frankly a simple truth: Jamaica, like much of the world economy, is heading into one of the hardest economic and political periods in its history. The next two years - 2013 and 2014 - are likely to be as hard as, if not harder than, the Great Depression years of 1934-36 which led immediately into the islandwide uprising in 1938.

This is likely not only because of the very grave state of the Jamaican economy. The coming storm is being driven principally by the global economic downturn. The convergence of these highly negative global forces poses an unprecedented challenge to all countries, especially small, open and vulnerable economies like Jamaica's.

Such a severe global economic contracting will not only have grave consequences for us economically. It also has the potential to destroy the political system. We must prepare ourselves for this coming storm psychologically, economically, socially and politically.

On the matter of education, let me make it clear from the outset that I completely disagree with those who state that we have made no progress, especially in education, since 1962. Some even go so far as to say we have regressed. This is a false view and cannot be supported by any data.

During the colonial days, literacy levels were extremely low - in the region of 30-40 per cent in 1962. Today, our overall level of literacy is above 70 per cent, at least. During the colonial period, our educational system basically stopped at the primary level for the vast mass of the people. The development of secondary education in this country is a post-1962 phenomenon.

Today, our enrolment ratios at the primary and secondary levels are about 98 per cent. As far as tertiary education is concerned, the establishment of what became the University of the West Indies (UWI) in 1948 did not alter the fact that only a very tiny percentage of our population had access to tertiary education. In fact, aside from the teacher-training colleges, tertiary education could have hardly been said to exist at all. Today, our tertiary enrolment is a very respectable 33 per cent and is expanding every year.


Notwithstanding, one would be blind, indeed, if one did not see that we have very grave problems in our educational system. What is the central problem? My argument is that the central problem is NOT weaknesses in our early-childhood education. Our central problem is the weakness of our secondary schools. Our priority in education must, therefore, be shifted to focus on one issue and one issue only: how do we strengthen and raise the quality of secondary education?

For various reasons, a view has gained ground that our priority should be early childhood education. Excellent work has been done in recent years, which we should do nothing to denigrate. But if the truth be told, fixing early-childhood education will only achieve one thing: the fixing of early childhood education.

It is a fallacy to believe that fixing early-childhood education is the key to fixing the entire education system - what I call 'the laxative theory of educational development'. The thought seems to be that an early upstream improvement of educational attainment will flow through the entire education system like a laxative and purge it of all its ailments. This is an illusion, and there are no data to support such a view locally or internationally.

The problems of primary education will not be fixed by addressing the early-childhood level. Nor will the problems of the secondary level be addressed by fixing the primary level. Fixing the primary level is what will fix the primary level, and likewise, it is the improvements made within the secondary level which will produce the higher-level passes in English and math at the CSEC level which we sorely need.

We should fix early-childhood education for the intrinsic value of early-childhood education - especially in the decisive zero to three years which have more to do with differences in parental status and culture than in the formal educational process per se.


Even if one did accept the laxative theory, consider what it would mean. It would mean, in effect, writing off the current youth in the 12-19 age group - the principal source of our achievements in sport and popular culture, as well as the principal source of the perpetrators of crime.

No one is so impolite to say so outright, but this is the reality of the early-childhood strategy, because it would take at least 15 years or more for this strategy to impact on our youth in the 12-19 age group. What would happen to our youth who are in those age groups now? Advocates of an early-childhood focus must answer this question.

The answer to this question, too impolite to mention, is this: let the police deal with them. We will conquer and intimidate them by force of arms. We shall wage a war against our youth while we wait on the beneficiaries of an improved early-childhood system to wend their way to adolescence. This is not only an utterly foolish and heartless strategy, it is also unworkable.

So let us look on what I argue is the main issue and why: the failures in secondary education.


The data are clear: despite its many problems, the primary- and prep-school system is by far the strongest part of our entire educational platform. This is apparent if we compare the achievement of our children in that abomination, the Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT), with their performance at the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) level.

When we do so, a telling fact emerges: the performance of our children in GSAT far exceeds their performance in CSEC. This can easily be confirmed factually. In the recently concluded GSAT, the national average scores were the following:

Math - 63 per cent

Science - 64 per cent

Social studies - 62 per cent

Language arts - 60 per cent

English composition - 75 per cent

On the other hand, in her recent widely quoted speech, the acting permanent secretary in the Ministry of Education informed us of the following: Of a cohort of 50,000 students in the secondary system, only 30,000 sat CSEC. Of this 30,000, only 15,000 received acceptable grades, and only 6,000 (12 per cent!) passed five subjects at a single sitting.

Only one conclusion can be arrived at from these data: the primary system is currently supplying students to the secondary system at a higher level than the secondary system is outputting. More crudely: the secondary system is dumbing down what has been achieved at the primary level.

Last year, the Planning Institute of Jamaica completed a comparative study of the 162 'CSEC-registered' secondary schools. They grouped them into the following three categories:

1. Upgraded secondary high schools

- 97, or 60 per cent

2. Secondary high schools

- 51, or 31 per cent

3. Technical High Schools

- 14, or nine per cent

Eighty-eight per cent of students in the secondary high school group scored above the national average in English and math. Twenty-five per cent of students in technical high schools scored above the national average. And only 13.4 per cent of students in upgraded secondary schools score above the national average. These numbers describe a brutal reality: after all these decades, these 'upgraded' high schools have yet to be upgraded.

The relapse of our children after GSAT seems to occur primarily in grades seven to nine, and especially in grade seven. Something is seriously wrong with the transition from the primary to the secondary levels. Part of it may be caused by poor teaching and principalship in secondary, as compared to primary, schools. Part of it may be linked to new economic demands on adolescents, especially in rural areas like upper Trelawny. Part of it could be because of the onset of adolescence-puberty, sex, popular culture, and so forth.

Whatever the source, the data suggest that a systemic problem of educational relapse has been taking place in age groups 12-14, especially affecting males.

This is not a problem which can be tackled by a special project. It is too systemic and all-pervasive. An entirely new and focused approach is needed. Fixing the educational experience of our adolescents is our principal challenge over the next five years. We must buckle down to tackle it without delay. The youth are our future and we must never forget it.

Professor Don Robotham is an anthropologist based in the United States. Email feedback to

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