Dreaming of a more equitable education system

Only recently Prime Minister Andrew Holness touched on inequalities in Jamaica’s education system and the effect of the novel coronavirus pandemic in widening those inequalities.

Those concerns hastened efforts towards a return to face-to-face tuition starting with a pilot project later this month.

Said Mr Holness: “Already, we had an unequal system, and what is going to happen now is that the problem would be exacerbated [by prolonged reliance on virtual school]… Many of them [children] were not able to access the best education, now moving them from physical delivery to a virtual platform; again you see the inequalities.”

Two stories in yesterday’s Sunday Observer obliquely remind us of inequalities in education.

In one article, we are told that past students of four top boys’ schools — St George’s College, Jamaica College, Kingston College and Wolmer’s Boys’ School — are complaining about how a private entity ranks the exam performance of high schools. Many of us will consider the issue trivial. However, the complainants are clearly concerned that lower exam rankings will negatively affect public perception of their elite schools.

In the second story, principal of non-traditional B B Coke High in Junction, St Elizabeth, Ms Evadney Ledgister says her school has been steadily improving in all areas in recent years.

And, despite the challenges, including those posed by COVID-19, such as only 50 per cent of students accessing the virtual platform, she spoke of her determination to push B B Coke towards becoming a top school.

For B B Coke High, the achievement of 18-year-old Mr Ainsley Rhoden, who excelled in the recent Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate sitting, despite growing up at a childcare facility as a ward of the State, is a source of great inspiration.

Two years ago, this newspaper felt obliged to congratulate principal of Mt Alvernia High School, Ms Stacey Reynolds. Back then, Mt Alvernia gained high praise for a giant leap in school rankings from 18th to sixth. The principal was no doubt pleased. But rather than exult, she pointed to flaws in the ranking system, including the absence of attention to “variables” including the academic levels of students entering individual high schools.

As most readers are probably aware, students with the highest marks in the high school entrance exams are usually placed in ‘schools of choice’, such as the four Kingston schools mentioned earlier. Those with the lowest marks are invariably placed at less recognised, non-traditional institutions, such as B B Coke High. Invariably those less recognised schools are badly under-resourced in every respect.

This means inequalities in education, and ultimately the wider society, are nurtured and perpetuated.

Successive governments have recognised the problem; however, the will to address it has been missing.

Obviously, fixing inequality in education can’t just involve changing the way children enter higher learning. For one thing, it is often closely linked to complex socio-economic realities.

How to provide equal opportunities for all from basic, through primary to high school, will be a major challenge for those who govern as the country gradually escapes the COVID-19 crisis.

It will help that the prime minister recognises inequality in education as a problem. Not everyone does.

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