Preprimary & Primary Education
In the 1960s Jamaican educators became interested in the ideas on compensatory education that were embodied in the Head Start program that was being implemented in the United States. D.R.B. Grant organized a team from UWI to strengthen the educational program in the basic schools. Supported by a grant from the Bernard Van Leer Foundation in The Netherlands, the team focused on enhancing the education and skill of teachers, improving the curriculum, developing teaching materials, and improving school facilities. The teacher training program the team developed "still serves as the model for Jamaica's community-based programs, and several other developing countries have adopted it" (Morrison and Milner 1995). It was not until 1977, however, that it became possible to earn a bachelor's degree in Early Childhood Education in Jamaica.
All childcare services were organized under the MOE&C in 1998 when Day Care Services was moved out of the Ministry of Health. The consolidation of services for children aged zero to five years was formalized in the comprehensive Early Childhood Education and Development Programme, established in1999 (UNESCO 2000).
Early childhood education is delivered through community-based, government-supported basic schools, government-run infant departments in primary and all-age, and kindergartens in privately owned preparatory schools. The government has demonstrated an increasing commitment to ensuring the readiness of children entering primary school by encouraging participation in early childhood programs. The number of governmentrecognized basic schools rose from 1,251 in 1990 to 1,980 in 1998 (UNESCO 2000). There was an increase in the percentage of the education budget going to early childhood education over the four years from 1996 (2.8 percent) to 2000 (4.5 percent), and this portion of the budget is slated for another increase in the 2001-2002 budget. Even children in privately owned facilities benefit from government subsidies for teacher salaries, class materials, and school meals. The MOE&C develops the early childhood curriculum and trains teachers in regular workshops; these endeavors have often been supported by grants and technical support from sources such as UNICEF and the Bernard Van Leer Foundation.
MOE&C (2001) reports that the preschool enrollment rate of children in the four- to five-year-old age group is 91 percent, which is one of the highest rates in the Caribbean region. Just over 80 percent of the children are enrolled in the community-operated basic schools, approximately 16 percent are in public infant departments, and the remaining 4 percent or so are in private kindergartens. Based on 1998 figures, the MOE&C (2001) reports that only 3.6 percent of children under age four are in supervised care, with more than 90 percent in private day care.
While enrollment rates are quite high, the overall effectiveness of the early childhood programs in preparing preschoolers for primary school is hard to gauge. Although the government in cooperation with UWI and the Van Leer Foundation embarked on a number of initiatives in the 1990s to increase the number of trained preschool teachers, there is still a large number (possible a majority) of para-professionals working in the system (UNESCO 2000). One of the goals of the MOE&C for the 2000 decade is to place at least one trained teacher in each basic school with a minimum enrollment of over one hundred. In addition, it is unclear whether the high enrollment rates reported accurately reflect participation in the programs. Absenteeism has been a problem in the primary schools. The government reports both gross and net enrollment levels for primary schools, but such figures for pre-primary schools are difficult to obtain.
The main focus during the 1990s has been on assessment. The National Assessment Programme (NAP), designed to monitor and assess learning outcomes, was developed during this period. After a two-year pilot program involving 32 schools, it was implemented in 1999. The NAP is made up of standardized measurement instruments designed to assess student readiness and performance at four points during the primary school years. A readiness inventory is given to all students entering grade one. A set of reading and mathematics diagnostics is administered at grade three. A literacy test is given at the fourth grade level, and the Grade Six Achievement Tests (GSAT) complete the battery. As of March 1999, over 2,000 teachers had been trained in the new methodologies associated with the NAP (UNESCO 2000).
The literacy test is intended to play a crucial role in regulating the flow of students through the system and in eliminating the practice of social promotion. Promotion from grade four to grade five will become contingent on mastery of reading skills rather than on age. The hope is that this will increase literacy rates and raise overall performance on the GSAT, which has replaced the Comprehensive Entrance Examination as the mechanism for placing students in secondary school.
Primary education covers grades one through six (roughly ages six through twelve years) and is offered in public primary schools and all-age schools, as well as private schools. All-age schools offer schooling from the primary level into first-cycle secondary school, that is, grades one through nine or one through eleven; many also include so-called infant departments that offer preschool programs. Considerable effort has been put into improving primary education after the island became independent in 1962. Access to primary education is universal and free from fees for all children enrolled in public schools. All primary students receive textbooks for all their subjects free of charge from the government each year. Despite this achievement in the provision of access, the main challenge facing Jamaica is improving the quality of education at this level.
The MOE&C states that "[i]t is at the primary grades that the foundation for the acquisition of knowledge, skills and values for further development and continuing education is laid" (Ministry of Education and Culture 2001). The government had been concerned with ensuring that the primary curriculum could stand on its own without necessarily being seen as simply a way of gaining access to secondary education, but recent policy statements from the MOE&C indicate that an eventual goal is to have all children complete at least the first cycle of secondary school. The secondary system is being reformed, and much consideration is being given to again revising the primary school curriculum in order to more adequately prepare children for entry into that system.
In the six to eleven age group, 2001 reports indicate that 99 percent are enrolled in school. However, average attendance at the primary level is relatively low at 78 percent; attendance rates for girls have been consistently three to four percentage points higher than those for boys, but the gap appears to have been narrowing during the decade of the nineties (UNESCO 2000). Attendance rates also tend to be higher in urban rather than in rural areas. The current literacy rate at the end of the primary level is 70 percent; a male-female asymmetry somewhat larger than that existing in attendance also exists in this area, but the gap here has also been narrowing. There is also a rural-urban literacy gap. Approximately 96 percent of enrolled students complete primary school. The national average teacher-to-student ratio is 1:32, but 14 percent of schools have a ratio of 1:42 or worse. Some 81 percent of teachers in the primary school system are qualified/certified, but rural and remote schools generally have a higher proportion of inadequately trained teachers. Approximately 52 percent of the schools are in "good" to "satisfactory" condition, and 86 percent of the students have satisfactory seating arrangements.
Efforts to improve the quality of primary education have centered on revising the primary curriculum, implementing an assessment system, increasing the number of qualified teachers in the system, and increasing the availability of support materials such as library books and computers. The language arts component of the curriculum has been revised to incorporate a development component, the goal being to equip all teachers of grades four and six with the means and the skills to diagnose and remediate reading difficulties. There is also an effort to establish performance standards in all areas of the curriculum at the end of each grade.
Preschool education is universally available for children aged four to six in both government-sponsored (basic schools) and private facilities (kindergarten departments at private preparatory schools). The MOE&C develops the preschool curriculum and sponsors regular workshops for training teachers in the basic schools. In order to promote school-readiness for children entering primary school, the government encourages parents to enroll their children in preschools. The MOE&C has also launched parent education initiatives that are aimed at encouraging conceptual and social development in children from ages zero to four.
Primary education covers six grades/years. Children ordinarily enter at age six and exit the system at age twelve. Promotion from grade to grade has been determined largely by age, but the MOE&C is putting in place mechanisms that are intended to end the policy of social promotion. At the end of primary school children take the Grade Six Achievement Tests (GSAT). The GSAT is part of the set of standardized instruments that form the National Assessment Program (NAP). It replaces the Common Entrance Examination as the measure used to place graduates from primary schools into secondary schools.
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