Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Failing Schools Syndrome

The script has become quite familiar and rather expected. It would be an understatement to say all is not well with Jamaica’s education system.  This notion was recently reinforced by the analysis and findings of the 2013 Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) results by Educate Jamaica.  According to Educate Jamaica, a leading think thank organization, seventy five (75) per cent of all the secondary schools in Jamaica are under performing. Correspondingly, only twenty five (25) per cent of all post primary schools in Jamaica are producing graduates capable of passing five or more subjects at the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) level inclusive of English Language and Mathematics.  A minimum of five CSEC subjects are required by Jamaican students in order to matriculate into tertiary level studies and or to enter the world of work. Disturbingly, three quarters of our secondary schools are not able to meet this minimum target. This is nothing new and has been the case for quite a while as our policy makers’ scurry to find solutions to tackle and address this crisis of national importance. 
Among the top performing schools we clearly see a trend. All top ten performing schools can be classified as church schools and as such it is apparent that there is great involvement of the particular denomination and the operation of their respective school.
Interestingly, seven of the top ten schools are single sex girls’ schools with three of the top ten offering boarding facilities.  In all probability the time has come for us as a society to revisit the issue of boarding schools in an effort to expand this service. This undoubtedly would provide much need structure and discipline to many of our students who are currently not benefitting from such an environment in many of our schools? 
Additionally, our boys are more at risk as is evident from the 2013 CSEC results in which no all boys school was listed among the top ten performing schools.  As a result the discourse continues and will intensify regarding the underperformance and under achievement of our males in the education system.
The Jamaica society is one in which there is an unquenchable fixation with focusing on our problems, we continue to do this at our peril. We need to foster and develop a culture of problem solving instead of merely identifying our problems. We spend too much time analyzing and dissecting our problems and too little time trying to find solutions to our problems.
One thing is glaringly and blinding clear as we scrutinize the issue of Jamaica’s education system. It’s all about that management. Management is at the root of the issue of both failing and top performing schools.
In order to fix the problem of failing secondary schools we need to take some radical decisions. One of which must be to strengthen the mechanism of accountability within the education system. Of course there can be no accountability without transparency. The Ministry of Education must strengthen the mechanism in place to monitor all schools especially those who are deemed as failing. Let us look for a minute at Robert Lightbourne High School which has a capacity of 900 students. According to the principal the current population is just under 300 students. Yet with such a low student population the school did not have passes in the 2013 CSEC examinations and was placed at the bottom of the underperforming schools. Clearly, such an institution needs the scaffolding of not only the Ministry of Education but all the stakeholders involved in the business of education. 
Immaculate Conception High was placed at the top of the best performing schools having had all their fifth form cohort passing five or more subjects including Mathematics and English Language. They are to be commended, however, let us be fair, had the results for Immaculate been otherwise something would have been terribly wrong since Immaculate Conception receives the best performing students from the Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT) with an average score of 95 per cent and above in all subjects.  The reality we face in Jamaica is that too many of our schools are schools of last resort.
Robert Lightbourne or Penwood High School is not a school of choice. We need to change it. It can be change; it must be changed with the input of all stakeholders.  Teachers should and must have a say in the operation of their school. Our schools are not sole partnerships of principals only.  Failure to address this now will see us back here ten years time revisiting this same issue.
We must find some practical and short term solutions to address this national crisis.        
Frankly, it may be necessary to revamp the management team of some of those failing schools in order to turn them around. Principals should be on contracts. The buck stops with them as Chief Operating Officer. We must take the necessary steps to rescue our failing schools or else there is no future for Jamaica.
In too many instances principals do not have the confidence of their general staff due mainly to their divisive management styles. In many failing school there is an abundance of unease and discord brewing below the surface. Undoubtedly, this will and does affect the performance of our schools. 
Additionally, we need to take a serious approach to how we constitute our school boards. We must appoint people of impeccable character and requisite educational background to serve on school boards. The time to take politics out of the education system is now failure to do so will only worsen the failing school syndrome which is spreading like a cancer.
We need Jamaica’s private sector to become more involved in the business of education. Our private sector needs to invest more in education. Maybe it would be useful for the private sector to adopt a struggling school. The government alone cannot turn around or correct the varied problems associated the education system. 
The community must become more proactive and protect the interest of the schools in their area.  The Alumnae Association must take a serious interest in the operation of their school.
Finally, our parents and guardians must become more involved in their children education.
Parents must monitor homework and make regular checks with the school they child attends.
Our parents must attend regularly parent teachers meeting. It cannot that as a parent you don’t know what grade your child is in.  That’s not good enough and shows a lack of interest in your child welfare and development.  Poverty is no excuse for being integrally involved in your child’s development.
In the final analysis it is going to require a collaborative effort from all the stakeholders to fix the education system. Both short and long term plans will be required to address the ills of our education system. There can be no sustainable development with an education system will is under performing.
The primary responsibility of the present generation is to fully equip the next generation with the necessary and requisite skills set and knowledge to take over the reins of leadership in the society.    

Wayne Campbell is an educator and social commentator with an interest in development policies as they affect culture and or gender issues.
waykam@yahoo.com