Jaevon Nelson | A large-scale learning crisis | On point

Yet another report has brought to light the horrendous state of the education system and we (myself included) are all behaving as if it hasn’t been entirely obvious. The recently launched report by the Patterson-led Commission on Education found that Jamaica is experiencing a “serious learning crisis” as most students are illiterate by the end of primary school and 7 out of 10 students drop out. secondary school without certification.

We spend too much on education to do so much harm.

Truth be told, if you were paying attention, you would be fully aware of the dire circumstances. Even at the tertiary level, there are students who can barely write a good 1500-word essay that makes sense. It seems that at some point, despite a myriad of changes, we created an assembly line, of sorts, moving students through the system with very little investment in quality control and research and Development. It really is like a real badly managed factory.

In 2019, in the recently introduced PEP (Primary Exit Profile) exams, only 41% of students passed math, 49% science and 55% language arts. Data shows that for language arts, one-third of students cannot read, 56% cannot write, and 57% cannot identify information in sentences. Of course, the situation looked much better under GSAT, but that’s because much of it was “remembered learning.” Similarly, in 2019, only 42.5% of the 32,617 students who took the CSTC exams passed five or more subjects, including English and/or mathematics. However, only 28% passed five or more subjects with both English and math.

If we’re honest with ourselves, the discoveries, terrible as they are, aren’t particularly new. In the early 2000s, several Education for All reports and others revealed that as a country, we don’t necessarily have an enrollment problem. The quality of education, school absenteeism and dropout (in secondary schools) were the issues that needed more attention. I also remember helping to support some of the Education Transformation Team consultations around 2007-2008 and some of the things we are discussing as challenges today were concerns raised by students from several parishes. Similarly, in 2012, a CAPRI report found that, as a percentage of GDP, we spend at the same level as many developed countries, but the return on investment is low.

The commission notes that the World Bank (2018) stated that “Jamaica is experiencing a learning crisis characterized by relatively high enrollment and worsening poor educational performance”.

From time to time, it is suggested that we should place “brighter” students in less successful schools. Unfortunately, the solution is not so simple. The answer to the challenges is not to place those with the lowest grades in the “best” secondary schools. It’s a mistake that those with the best grades can make in any circumstance. It is not a homogeneous group. Schools need to be resourced and held accountable so that all students do well.


We need to look at underperforming schools, the conditions there, not just the socio-economic and other challenges students face in their homes and communities, and why they are the way they are. Multiple reports from the National Inspectorate of Education are instructive in this regard. We need to look at teacher training, financial resources, etc. We need to look at what kinds of systems are in place in homes and communities to encourage learning. Good academic results depend on an ecosystem and, in rare cases, a deep personal motivation to excel, regardless of one’s circumstances.

National attention must be focused on creating a better standard in all schools to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to do well. That must be the goal and we don’t have that now. As can be seen, only a handful of schools do well.

As an education activist and school transformation coach, Renee Rattray said that “some of the key ingredients we are missing are strong leadership, the best teaching, genuine parent engagement, a welcoming environment and accountability systems from the Heroes Circle to the classroom”.

We need to pay more and more attention to the learning crisis. We need to ensure, as the Commission has recommended, that there is more emphasis on accountability. We need to put more pressure on the Ministry of Education and the associations of teachers and principals. We need to set up a body like the CMOC and EPOC to ensure that the Commission’s recommendations are implemented with alacrity and care. We can no longer afford to be shabby. The learning crisis is hurting us in many ways and our leaders should be shaken by these findings.

– Jaevion Nelson is an advocate for human rights, economic and social justice and inclusive development. Email your comments to [email protected] and [email protected] or tweet @jaevionn

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