Prisms of possibility: A report card on education in Jamaica

Dawn Sewell Lawson
January 21, 2013

Jamaicans have long been concerned about investment in and the equity of the education sector. Yet, contrary to
popular belief, the problem is not solely about money. Between 2005 and 2010, public investment in education as a
percent of GDP increased from 5.3 to 6.1 percent, more than the average for developed countries (5.2%). Most of
Jamaica’s children attend school at least through lower secondary, and the country has a robust assessment system,
which incorporates both national and school-based assessment.

However, low test scores at all levels of the Jamaican education system suggest that there are gaps in the system
that negatively impact the learning outcomes of many students. Poor children are particularly ill-served. Children in
prep schools—privately run primary level institutions usually attended by children from upper socio-economic groups
—outperform their counterparts in the public school system in all five Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT) subjects,
sometimes by as much as 30 percentage points. Approximately 90% of the poorest persons have no secondary or
post-secondary certification compared with only 56% of the wealthiest.

Varying resources among schools remains a challenge. It is not uncommon to find better performing schools with more than one computer lab, wi-fi, and furnished school libraries co-existing with schools with a bare minimum number of computers, no library and severe overcrowding.

High levels of per pupil spending on tertiary primarily benefit students from wealthier households since few students from poorer households reach this level.

New systems for assessing school performance currently being implemented should help identify pressing needs and target resources to where they are most needed while ensuring accountability. Mechanisms for annual monitoring at the school level, including a more structured use of data from national tests and curriculum guidelines, will be critical to this process. However, it remains to be seen how well these systems will work in practice. Teachers’ education levels have improved, but making sure skills learned in training are applied in the classroom also remains a challenge.

The following table offers a summary of nine critical dimensions of education in Jamaica. For each of these topics, the table presents the current status (grade) and the prospects for progress (trend arrow). The evaluation, although necessarily subjective, is based on the best data available and is intended as a starting point for a shared conversation on needed improvements. All players, including the Ministry, parents, students, administrators, teachers, employers and community leaders have a part to play in ensuring students learn. Setting and enforcing standards that clearly lay out the resources and mechanisms needed to guarantee learning would go a long way toward providing Jamaican children with the education they need and deserve. The possibilities exist for us to build on the strong foundation we have laid over the years to provide all Jamaican children with a world-class education and unearth our nation’s potential. Success depends on us accepting that “we all can act and we all must act”. When we do, the possibilities are endless.

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