Editorial | Clarke should pull plug on sixth form scheme | Commentary

Editorial | Clarke should pull plug on sixth form scheme | Commentary


What is that Aldous Huxley quote about folly often being more cruel in its consequences than malice done with intent? Which we hope won’t be the outcome of the education ministry’s relentless push, against all good advice, for the premature launch of its mandatory Sixth Form Pathways Programme (SFPP). We, however, worry it will be the case.

The latest signal of the authorities intention to bulldoze the initiative came last Wednesday when Kasan Troupe, the chief education officer , told Parliament’s Public Administration and Appropriations Committee (PAAC) of the ministry’s plan to reallocate money from failed projects to partially cover initiative’s first year cost of J$2 billion. We, however, have two observations on Dr Troupe’s testimony.

First, she did nothing to clear the conceptual and administrative fuzziness of the SFPP, which the vast majority of high school principals are yet to grasp or support. Second, her intention came only a day after the education minister, Fayval Williams, and the finance minister, Nigel Clarke, formally released a World Bank public expenditure review of Jamaica’s education sector. It showed that taxpayers don’t get value for the money they spend on education, which everyone already knew. The document confirmed it with hard data.

Indeed, the World Bank analysis helped to inform the work of the Orlando Patterson Commission on reforming Jamaica’s education system. Among its key recommendations is that urgent attention be paid to early childhood education, which echoed the World Bank’s call for the reallocation of money from the tertiary to the early childhood sector. The Patterson Commission also proposed that cash from the Government’s vocational training institution, HEART/NSTA Trust, be used to fund early childhood education.

ANALYSIS

In their analysis of the crisis in education, Professor Patterson’s team noticeably didn’t raise, or suggest, extending the standard five years Jamaican students spend in secondary school, but concentrated on what is to be done to fix existing problems. Maybe SFPP, which would take the secondary education period to seven years, is a good idea. However, it seems counter-intuitive that the authorities would seek to ram it through before the Patterson report has been subject to public debate and only peremptory discussion has happened on the SFPP itself. The danger is that a cruel and costly malice will be perpetrated on taxpayers by a ministry that doesn’t have a good track record of either fiscal prudence or accountability and whose delivery of educational outcomes is poor.

The Jamaican government spending in education in recent years has hovered just below a fifth (19 per cent) of its annual budget, accounting for more than five per cent of the island’s gross national product (GDP). The World Bank analysis says that Jamaica’s per student allocation to education at the secondary and primary levels, as a share of per capita GDP – 26 and 18 per cent, respectively – is higher than its regional peers and aspirational comparators. At the tertiary level, at 35 per cent, the per student spend, as a proportion of per capita GDP, the expenditure was not only much higher than its regional peers and Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, but equal to its high-income aspiration comparators. Yet, our educational outcomes are dismal.

In 2019, after the introduction of a test that emphasises critical thinking rather than learning by rote, a third of grade six students couldn’t read; 56 per cent couldn’t write; and 57 per cent could not extract information from simple sentences.

Said the Patterson Commission: “[At] the end of primary school, the majority of students remain illiterate and innumerate, and most leave secondary school with no marketable skill.”

LAGGING

Jamaica’s lagging education performance is captured by another measure employed in the World Bank study, the learning adjusted years of schooling (LAYS), a matrix that combines the average years of schooling in a country and its educational outcomes at given grade levels, compared to a benchmarked country (the highest scorer in a given year). On this measure Jamaica and other Caribbean countries score close to other countries with similar levels of development. However, when Jamaica’s level of expenditure on education and its population are added to the mix, the island’s LAYS score, according to the World Bank analysis, is “10 per cent below expectation”.

Where Jamaica falls substantially short against its regional peers and global comparators in education spending is at the early childhood level. Its ratio of seven per cent per student of per capita GDP is substantially lower than its comparators, and that expenditure is mostly by parents. This is the context in which both the World Bank report and the Patterson Commission called for a rebalancing of the State’s education spend, from tertiary to early childhood sectors, as well as greater efficiency and equity in the utilisation of education resources to ensure better outcomes.

These issues, and others identified in both documents, are the matters on which the education ministry should be focusing its attention , rather than this new sixth form initiative, which most people are still trying to unravel and those bits that are understood can be facilitated in existing vocational training institutions.

If good sense won’t prevail at the education ministry, Nigel Clarke, who has to green-light the money for SFPP, should tell Minister Williams to shelve the project until stakeholders can determine whether it makes sense in the context of the Patterson report and won’t be a cruel folly. After all, J$2 billion could go a long way in paying for the programmes to catch up on the COVID-19 learning loss.



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