Independence: Nothing more than a warm and fuzzy feeling at best. Remembering Tisha.

I’m sad. In 1962 Jamaicans were hopeful as we claimed our independence from Britain. It is 2015. Here we are. It makes the news when an eternally malfunctioning elevator at the public hospital in Kington is fixed. Horror stories, almost unbelievable, about the absence of basic medical supplies in the public health system become a daily fixture on radio talk shows.  Bombarded with one political scandal after another (think Trafigura, Cuban Light Bulb, Manat-Phillips-Phelps, Finsac, Tivoli incursion to name a few) our numbness renders us impassive to constitutional breeches that could have serious repercussions down the road. If you’ve ever been the position of having to find suitable hires, then I need not regale you with how the educational system has failed. We have had rehashed anti-crime programmes thrust upon us ad naseum, with nothing but rising crime, more sophisticated in its organisation. The generation before my own has failed, and I suspect that my own children will say that we have failed them too. We haven’t fought for better. We have tolerated mediocrity, and some of us have been complicit when it suited a personal agenda.

This morning I remembered Tisha*. Tisha was a HEART trainee with the organisation. She was quiet and diligent. She was well spoken and shy. One morning she brought some documents to my office for my signature. She greeted me with her quiet voice and pleasant smile. As I scanned the documents and signed, we began talking. I am a prober by nature. I stopped signing and sat back. She had caught my attention with her thoughtful, well constructed answers to my probing. It turned out that Tisha had 10 CSEC subjects, sciences included. Yet here she was, a filing clerk in a programme that demanded no more than 4 CSEC subjects.

“I wanted to go to 6th form to do A levels and then head on to University to do medicine. But my family couldn’t afford it. My father told me that it was time for me to get a job and do my part.” 

I probed further.

“I wanted to do medicine” she explained with a sad smile.

“So what is your plan B then?” I insisted.

Tisha was stumped. The notion of a plan, much less a plan B had never occurred to her.

“Listen” I said…”Med school may be out of your reach. Let me be honest with you. But that does not mean that you have to put all professional aspirations on hold. If I told you that you could go to University, but that you couldn’t do medicine, what would you do?”

“Accounts” she offered.

“Now we can plan!” I said excitedly.

“But I have to have A levels” she said worriedly.

“No, no, no! To do A levels now would add years and cost to your journey. Here’s what you can do: get out of this HEART internship and get a real job. Then apply to UTECH. Then apply for a student’s loan.”

We had the start of a plan. Every week I’d check with Tisha re: the job hunt. In about 2 months she told me that she had a firm offer that would pay her much more than the HEART position. I guided her with respect to the timing of the resignation from HEART. I took her to the Students Load Bureau and guided her application to UTECH.

Tisha moved on. I heard that she was doing a degree in Business Admin at UTECH and I rejoiced. Tisha had been suffering a double whammy: lack of resources and lack of guidance.

I ran into Tisha about 4 years later at the public library. We embraced, and then she introduced me to her toddler daughter shyly. I cut straight to to chase: “So did you finish your degree?”

“No” she replied softly, head down. “I had one more year to do, but I had to stop.”

I encouraged her to enquire about the possibility of doing it part-time, and of the need to marshal all her resources into completing that degree.

I never kept in touch. I hope her story ended well.

Free education was never really free. As a nation we never defined how education would be paid for. The result has been a diminishing quality of product year after year after year.

Decades after so called independence, our safety nets and support structures for a marginalized population are not at all robust. Our young lack opportunities and guidance. Independence bestowed a warm and fuzzy feeling. Not a thing more.

What next then?

I suspect that we will have to an about face for better to come. The current trajectory, be it green or orange will continue the descent into poverty, inequity and hopelessness.

*name changed

about GSAT

GSAT is an exam that all students in Grade 6 in Jamaica have to do in order to be placed in one of the hundreds of government run secondary schools on the island.  Standards of performance vary widely from secondary school to secondary school, with the better performing ones being in the minority.  There is therefore stiff competition, with literally thousands of children vying for only scores of places in these more desirable institutions.   Here’s a letter that I wrote to the editor of our leading daily, the Gleaner, that was published on Wed Feb 29.  It got Letter of the Day.

LETTER OF THE DAY – GSAT Symptom Of System

Published: Wednesday | February 29, 20128 Comments

THE EDITOR, Sir:
So GSAT is to be reviewed. That is good news, though I am not sure what is going to really be achieved in the final analysis.
In my opinion, there are two issues at play here: GSAT as a tool to assess a grade six student’s knowledge and competence per his/her grade level; and GSAT as a tool to place students in a secondary-schoolsystem which appears to have different levels of success, evidenced by CSEC examination results.
I am a mother of two, and my experience with the GSAT curriculum aggravates me on two levels. First, it seems that GSAT emphasises trivia at the expense of the thorough understanding of mathematics and language arts. There really is nothing wrong with general knowledge, but when children are forced to cram information such as the second-largest lake in South America or the name of the third ship that Columbus sailed on, it leaves little time to ensure that the foundations of learning are properly crafted.
Second, with the volume of information these 11- and 12-year-olds have to memorise, little time is left to explore other areas of learning that are critical to building well-rounded, self-assured individuals. The end result is that the fun is sucked out of learning and the natural curiosities that lead to inventions, innovations and learning are snuffed out.
Thousands disadvantaged
The other issue is with GSAT as a placement mechanism. With just a few schools being deemed ‘good’ based on exam results at the secondary level, and thousands of children and their parents seeking entry to these ‘good’ schools, GSAT effectively acts as the selection tool.
Therefore, thousands of children who achieve average results (75-85 per cent) are made to feel like underperformers and placed in the ‘not-so-good’ schools.
The issue here is not that there is GSAT at all. The issue is Jamaica’s educational system, where performance at the secondary level varies significantly from school to school, the better-performing institutions being far fewer in number than the underperforming ones.
The bottom line: No matter how you tweak GSAT, until performance increases across the board in our secondary schools, you will always have to screen and select in order to place children in the few ‘good’ schools. This is our reality, and our children suffer.
KELLY MCINTOSH

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