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History & Background

The history of education in Jamaica is perhaps best understood in the context of the island's colonial past. The education system and its administration were fashioned after the British system; and many of the developments in the history of Jamaican education can be seen as responses to events such as the abolition of slavery 1834, the advent of suffrage in 1944, and the achievement of independence in 1962. Much of the recent history of education in Jamaica has been driven by the perceived need to develop "homegrown" responses to economic, social, and political pressures on the island and in the Caribbean region (Whiteman 1994).

Before the Act of Emancipation went into effect in 1834 there appears to have been little in the way of a formal education system for whites and no system for educating indigenous people and slaves. White colonists who could afford it sent their sons back to the "mother country" for schooling, while others hired private tutors. Those who were less affluent sent their sons to one of the few free schools that were established through bequests from wealthy planters and merchants. The curriculum in the free schools was based on that offered by similar schools in Great Britain and was intended "to offer a classical education to young gentlemen so that they would be properly fitted to take their place in society" (Hamilton 1997). A few slave children received some schooling at plantation schools established by foreign missionaries, but their education dealt mostly with religion and the virtues of submission (Wilkins & Gamble 2000). At least some of these plantation schools provided education for girls as well as boys (Bailey 1997).

There is little documented about the education of girls in the colony before 1770 when Wolmer's Free School initiated a modified curriculum for girls that was designed to prepare them for running a home or for employment as seamstresses and mantuamakers. Hamilton (1997) states that some girls were able to get teaching positions.

Once slavery was abolished in 1834, the British saw education as an important way to integrate ex-slaves into the colonial economy and to ensure a peaceful lower class (Morrison & Milner 1995). In the years following emancipation, missionary societies developed a system of elementary education for the newly freed slaves. This system was taken over by the colonial government beginning in the 1860s. Cogan and Thompson (1988) see the eventual government sponsorship of a system of secular education as a response to the conflicts between propertied classes that led to the Morant Bay Rebellion of 1865. Schooling emphasized skills that would prepare children for eventual employment as estate workers. The elementary curriculum focused on reading, writing and arithmetic with some religious training and occasional geography and history instruction. In addition, boys were given training in agriculture and other manual arts, and girls received lessons in sewing and domestic science. These separate tracks for boys and girls were formalized in the Lumb Report of 1898 (Hamilton 1997). The report emphasized the need for agricultural training in order to counteract trends seen as threatening to the colonial economy and society: students were developing a distaste for manual labor and were moving from the countryside to the cities and towns to take up clerkships and other similar occupations.

The school system continued to expand at the beginning of the twentieth century but nonetheless continued to be guided by the nineteenth century colonial practice of educating children to fit their station in life (Hamilton 1997, Whiteman 1994). As the relative number of British people in Jamaica began to decrease, it became necessary to move native Jamaicans into certain intermediate occupations, and this resulted in growth in the secondary school system and the creation of government scholarships for university study abroad (Wilkins & Gamble 2000). Elementary schools began to hold annual scholarship examinations in order to allow some children who would not have been able to afford the fees to attend secondary school. Burchell Whiteman (Minister of Education and Culture of Jamaica) characterizes these movements as the beginnings of the struggle to change the secondary schools from "being comprised of students with the 'ability to pay' to students with the 'ability to benefit from' the education offered" (1994). During the 1930s economic pressures associated with the Depression and the colonial system in general resulted in widespread unemployment among Jamaicans. This, coupled with chronically low wages and endemic poverty and with the growing desire among Jamaicans for self-rule, led to the formation of groups such as the Jamaica Workers' and Tradesmen's Union (in 1934) and the Peoples' National Party (in 1938). Mass protests and marches among the working poor and the unemployed became common and frequently ended in rioting. The British responded with the Orde Brown Inquiry into labor conditions in the colony and the formation of the West India Royal Commission under Lord Moyne which was charged with inquiring into the social, economic, and educational conditions underlying the unrest.

The Kandel Report and the associated Plan for Post-Primary Education in Jamaica of 1943-1944 addressed the educational, social, and economic conditions in the colony once again. It focused on establishing a system of post-primary education "so as to ameliorate the existing harsh socially segregated education with its class and color configurations" (Whiteman 1994). The report and plan also addressed curricula at the secondary level, establishing a common literary core for both boys and girls but further solidifying the gendered vocational training "tracks" originally formalized in the Lumb Report (Hamilton 1997).

Much of the reform and restructuring that took place from this time up until independence is described by Sherlock and Bennett (1998) as "a period of tutelage . . .[in which what] was granted was diluted self-government in doses graduated to suit the imperial interests." There was much to do because "the colonial system of education bred a lack of self-confidence among blacks in their own ability to manage their own affairs" (Sherlock & Bennett 1998). As part of this general trend toward the self-sufficiency of the island (and of the whole British Caribbean), the University of the West Indies (UWI) was founded in 1948 at Mona, Jamaica. This was an important step in establishing educational independence because Jamaica had been forced to import university graduates from Great Britain to serve as senior staff in secondary schools. The birth of the Department of Education at UWI in 1952 was a major step toward a completely "home-grown" educational system.

The processes leading toward self-rule and eventual independence for Jamaica were accelerated by the complex events and forces that arose during and after World War II. Sherlock and Bennett (1998) argue that the rejection of Nazi anti-Semitism and Aryan superiority led the British to see as untenable "the concepts of empire and of the trusteeship of a superior race." The Jamaican Constitution was revised in 1944 to grant voting rights to all adults, and the British also started the process of ending colonial economic exploitation by setting up a colonial development fund.

The Moyne report's conclusions with regard to education noted that a lack of central control over the primary schools resulted in inefficiency in administration. It also pointed out that there was a lack of correspondence between the schools' curricula and the needs of those living in Jamaica. The report recommended, among other things, that the curriculum be modified to include courses in health and hygiene, that preschools be established (even though many community-based preschools already existed and Rev. Ward had recently addressed the government on this matter, that schools be organized into levels (Primary for six- to twelve-year-olds, and Junior for twelve- to-fifteen-year-olds), and that schools be brought up to modern standards with respect to buildings, sanitation, water purity, and school equipment. It is generally agreed that the Moyne Report also contributed impetus toward the granting of universal adult suffrage and (limited) self-rule in the colony.

Additional topics

Education Encyclopedia - StateUniversity.comGlobal Education ReferenceJamaica - History Background, Constitutional Legal Foundations, Educational System—overview, Preprimary Primary Education, Secondary Education