Caribbean Islands Table of Contents

The educational system was slow to reach most Jamaicans until the early 1970s. Even after the abolition of slavery, education remained uncommon; early efforts were conducted mostly by Christian churches. In the late 1800s, some secondary schools created in Kingston served primarily the light-skinned elite. The limited availability of schools, especially beyond the primary level, and the elitist curriculum intensified class divisions in colonial society. A dual system of education, characterized by governmentrun primary schools and private secondary schools, effectively barred a large part of the population from attaining more than functional literacy. In addition, much of the content of formal education in Jamaica was largely irrelevant for students unable to attend universities in Britain. In 1943, fewer than 1 percent of blacks and only 9 percent of the mixed races attended secondary school.

The start of early self-government in 1944 finally cleared the way for increased funding for education. From the establishment of the Ministry of Education in 1953 to independence in 1962, a national education policy was developed that expanded the scope of education and redefined educational priorities. During the 1960s, the major goal of the government in the field of education was the construction of an adequate number of primary schools and fifty junior secondary schools (grades seven, eight, and nine). Until the 1970s, however, the educational system continued to provide insufficient opportunities at the postprimary levels because many of the features inherited from the British educational system remained.

The PNP government elected in 1972 initiated major changes in the educational system. Qualitative and quantitative improvements in education were identified as the key elements of the new government's program during its first term in office (1972-76). The two most important aspects of the program were universally free secondary and college education and a campaign to eliminate illiteracy. Educational reforms were intended to redress the social inequalities that the system of secondary education had formerly promoted and to create greater access for all Jamaicans to the preferred government and private-sector jobs that typically required a secondary school diploma.

The reforms of secondary education had positive but limited effects. Greater access to educational was the main accomplishment of the reform process, but limited funding may also have lowered the quality of education for the increased numbers of students attending secondary schools. Nevertheless, the introduction of universally free secondary education was a major step in removing the institutional barriers confronting poor Jamaicans who were otherwise unable to afford tuition.

After changes in its literacy policies in the early 1970s, the PNP government in 1974 formed the Jamaica Movement for the Advancement of Literacy (JAMAL), which administered adult education programs with the goal of involving 100,000 adults a year. Although in 1987 specific data were lacking, increases in the national literacy rates suggested the program was successful. Literacy rates increased from 16.3 percent in 1871 to 47.2 percent in 1911, 67.9 percent in 1943, and more than 85 percent by the late 1970s.

The educational system in Jamaica was quite complex in the 1980s. The public school system was administered principally by the Ministry of Education and regional school boards. Four major levels (preprimary, primary, secondary, and higher education) were divided into a number of different types of schools. The preprimary level was made up of infant and basic schools (ages four to six); primary education was provided at primary and "all-age" schools (grades one through six). Secondary schools included "new" secondary schools, comprehensive schools, and technical high schools (grades seven through eleven) as well as trade and vocational institutes and high schools (grades seven through thirteen). The twelfth and thirteenth years of high school were preparatory for university matriculation. The government also administered a school for the handicapped in Kingston.

Although education was free in the public schools and school attendance was compulsory to the age of sixteen, costs for books, uniforms, lunch, and transport deterred some families from sending their children to school. Public school enrollment ranged from 98 percent at the primary level to 58 percent at the secondary level in the early 1980s. Schools were generally crowded, averaging forty students per class.

There were also some 232 privately run schools in Jamaica, ranging from primary to college. The total enrollment in private schools was 41,000, or less than 7 percent of total public school enrollment. Most private-school students were enrolled in university preparatory programs. Both public and private schools were characterized by numerous examinations that determined placement and advancement. This testing material was originally British, but by the 1980s the Caribbean Examinations Council was increasingly the author of such tests.

Several colleges and universities served a limited number of Jamaican students. These included the largest campus of the University of the West Indies (UWI), the College of Arts, Science, and Technology (CAST), the College of Agriculture, various teachers colleges and community colleges, and a cultural training center made up of separate schools of dance, drama, art, and music. Located at Mona in the Kingston metropolitan area, the UWI was the most prominent institution of higher learning on the island, offering degree programs in most major fields of study. As a regional university serving the needs of all the Commonwealth Caribbean islands, the UWI also maintained campuses in Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados. Approximately 5 percent of the Jamaican population participated in university studies, although some students pursued their academic training outside the Caribbean. In 1985 the government announced plans to begin reorganizing higher education, including the eventual merger of CAST and the College of Agriculture into a polytechnical institute or a university.

In the early 1980s, the government reoriented its development strategies for education, emphasizing basic education in grades one to nine and human resources training. The government's plan stressed rehabilitating and upgrading primary and basic education facilities, improving the quality and efficiency of basic education, implementing a full curriculum for grades seven to nine in all-age schools, and establishing an effective inservice training program for teachers. Problems in secondary education were also identified, such as the existence of a complicated, secondary school system that produced graduates of varying quality and wasted scarce financial resources.

The goals of developing the human resource potential of the population intended to provide educational opportunities for students to prepare them for the types of jobs available in Jamaica. According to Prime Minister Edward Seaga, elected in 1980, a major policy in the area of primary education was to ensure that primary school graduates achieved functional literacy. Secondary education was restructured to provide students with an education sufficient to meet the requirements of upper secondary school. The government reported in June 1986 that only 9,000 of 82,000 students in lower secondary schools were receiving an acceptable level of education.

At the postsecondary level, the most important initiative of the government was the Human Employment and Resource Training Program (HEART). Announced in 1982, HEART aimed at providing training and employment for unemployed youths finished with school. In 1983, roughly 4,160 persons began job training or entered continuing business education classes. In 1985 six specialized HEART academies provided training in agriculture; hotel, secretarial, and commercial services; postal and telegraph operations; industrial production; and cosmetology. Nearly 1,400 persons completed agricultural or construction trades programs administered by the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Youth and Community Development. The HEART program called for the eventual construction of 12 academies capable of training 500 youths at a time in various skills. The program's critics charged, however, that funds could be better spent on community colleges.

Education became increasingly politicized in the late 1980s, mostly as a result of the scarcity of resources. Spending on education declined to about 11 percent of government expenditures in the early 1980s, after peaking at nearly 20 percent of the 1973 budget. Issues of increased pay for teachers and renewed tuition expenses at the UWI threatened to make education a national political issue.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress