About Joshua Spencer

Joshua Spencer is an educator, author and poet. He writes out of Toronto Canada

In the past, and in the few months prior to the opening of school in September of each year, there have been much talk about the Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT). Many are in support of it and deem it the most fair and the only means to place students in the limited places available in our secondary school system.

Others think the contrary, and would urge Government to have a ‘free flow system’ as is the general case in most North American schools. Students just continue along the ‘learning experience’ from junior kindergarten to grade 12, without any special placement tests to determine whether they go to high school or some perceived inferior secondary school, as is obtained in Jamaica today.

In this North American method, the bright students are placed with the not-so-bright students in terms of learning needs, knowledge and abilities. In short, all students, irrespective of backgrounds, are juxtaposed in a ‘fittest of the fittest survival’ ambience. The only constraints are the residential locations of students in respect to the relative geographical locations of the secondary institutions.

Along with many others associated with education, I am beginning to conclude that a combination of the latter mode and the current way of placing our Jamaican students may be the best compromise for Jamaica, under the circumstance. A circumstance under which many students and parents are in a state of dissatisfaction year in and year out, when the GSAT results are made public. Some students even take this ‘failure’ of the GSAT into their adult life and have never totally got rid of this feeling of being  dunces and the rejects of our society.

It is my recommendation that all secondary schools be brought to the same levels in terms of teaching facilities and offerings of the curriculum, this appeal on behalf of the thousands of Jamaica’s children today who have perceived themselves as failures because of the Common Entrance Examination and now the Grade Six Achievement Test.

The irony with all of this is, that most of the traditional high schools, in which most of our children are getting psychologically ruined because of not accessing a space through the GSAT, are now a mere splint of what they were in the seventies and eighties and even prior years. This is, in terms of qualification of teachers, availability of specialists, etc., even though the same old thinking persists on the part of many. That is, the erroneous view that these schools are significanly better for our children than the relatively, newly converted high schools.

But what are the facts? For example, When I was a student of Manning’s in the seventies, more than 95% of staff had, at least, a first degree and there were few with masters and at least one with a PhD. Moreover, ‘undegreed’ teachers were not allowed to teach further than first form!

But what percent of these traditional schools’ staff membership currently has even a first degree, or any specialist training to adequately attend to educational challenges of today’s students or even the basic qualification to teach in the areas of which they are asked to teach? The last time I checked, a significant number of Jamaican fifth form teachers in prominent traditional high schools had nothing but a teaching certificate or diploma and were teaching subjects that they were not qualified to teach!

So then, why is there so much pressure on students and teachers to get students to a level that GSAT’s results will get them into these traditional institutions?

Part of this is due to the fact that parents and the society, in general, have been asleep and are incognisant of the changes that have occurred in the system and for the worst, during the past several years. There is a false perception that the quality of tradtional high schools is significantly better than that of the new class of schools. The other reason is that those of us who have attended traditional high schools are in denial. We don’t want to believe that our high schools are not so different from the ordinary secondary schools in the innercity of whatever name that may be used to describe these schools today. We want to cherish the notion of academic superiority over others. It’s a psychological thing!

I therefore recommend to the current Government, via the well-read Abeng Magagazine News, that first, all secondary level schools be provided a commom curriculum and the same basic teaching aids and materials. For example, if computer science is offered at say, St. George’s College, it should also be offered at say, Papine High school.Teachers offering these courses should all be exposed to, and successfully pass them and satisfy content requirements as well as expertise in methodological offerings.

Secondly, the GSAT should only be used as a means of assessing the attainment of knowledge and skills of pupils moving on to high schools. The detailed results should be forwarded to the schools to which the students will be admitted. The high school teachers can therefore use this information as diagnostic tools to enhance the pupils’ learning. The percentage score in the exam should have absolutely nothing to do with where pupils are placed in high school in this new approach as all schools would now have the same material resources, and personnel, under this new recommended system.

It is obvious that a lot of ongoing training will and must take shape on the part of our teachers to put all the schools on a level playing field, and before these recommendations can be implemented. Note that initially this training need not be an effort to get all teachers acquiring university degrees, however, teachers and principals must enrol in and complete courses successfully to bring about this change. Some of these courses could be harnessed through distance learning via the internet from reputable institutions, locally and abroad.

This approach will mitigate the stigma and stress among schools, students and teachers over time. Importantly, students and parents will save cost in not having to travel miles across the country to high school as this new endeavour will ensure that there is a high school just a stone’s throw away for every potential high school child.

Think about it.

Joshua Spencer is a Jamaican born educator, author and poet. He writes out of Toronto, Canada