Placing priority on education

Dear Editor,

Most small countries trying to compete in the modern world have quite rightly placed an inordinate emphasis on education. But such priority is not restricted to small, resource-scarce countries. Education benefits everyone. The richest countries in the world do not necessarily dominate the rankings of best educational systems but they are aware that education and national wealth are related. Most smart countries see the tremendous benefits of a sound, comprehensive educational system. The top 10 countries with the best education systems in ranked order are: South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Finland, the United Kingdom, Canada, the Netherlands, Ireland and Poland. If the ranking were expanded to include the top 20, then one would find, in descending order, Denmark, Germany, Russia, the USA, Australia, New Zealand, Israel, Belgium, the Czech Republic and Switzerland. Significantly, no Latin American, Caribbean, or African state ranks in the top 30 countries by this measure, although Chile comes close with a number 32 ranking. This is not to say that some of the countries left off the list – it includes only the top 40 in the world – do not have adequate educational systems. Certainly they do. But there is something that differentiates systems that are merely good from systems that are deemed to be excellent.

Excellent systems tend to construct fully integrated learning institutions from the primary level through the tertiary level. They tend to respect and reward teachers very well. They tend to have clearly articulated goals and learning outcomes; and the systems tend to have a strong institutional culture of engagement and accountability across a broad community of stakeholders. That means that everyone involved – students, teachers, parents, the broader local community and the government – has an important role to play. In all excellent systems, education is considered to be far more than merely learning and certification, although those two aspects are crucial. Education is regarded as fundamentally the construction of citizenship and laying the indispensable foundations for a viable, self-sustaining state.

Education has always been an expensive investment. Formal schooling begins around age 6 and continues until around age 20 when the products of the system begin to enter the workplace where they can start to repay a part of the collective long-term investment made in their education. The repayment is largely, but not entirely, in the form of various types of taxes. Taxation, of course, is the most visible form of payback. But an educated citizenry tends to be creative, inventing technology that boosts production and productivity and enhances individual and collective wealth. An educated citizenry also tends to utilise its knowledge and wisdom to make good choices such as the selection of adequate political and social leaders and supporting good community activities.

If Jamaica wishes to build an excellent educational system, it has to take into consideration a few ideas. An excellent system requires consistent long-term financial support. The two major political parties would have to agree on the long-term goals and outcomes and they would also have to agree that the established priorities cannot, and should not be subject to changing electoral results. This, of course, means placing the goodwill of the country above the immediate exigencies and expediency of any individual political party, probably an inclination not easy for the present political participants. An educational plan for Jamaica should not be a part of an election campaign but an ongoing bipartisan programme to build a strong, safe, attractive and stable country.

There are two areas of enormous importance in the case of Jamaica. The first is to foster the respect and compensation of teachers at all levels – primary, secondary, and university. Good teachers bring an intangible quality to the development of the mind that is not easily quantified, evaluated, or compensated. But adequate compensation has a way of reflecting how the government, and by extension the wider community, appreciates and values the services of a teacher. No innovative technology can replace a good, highly motivated teacher. The second is the physical conditions where general education takes place. Schools should not be the dismal buildings too commonly found around the island. They should be attractive environments that stimulate learning in diverse ways. Apart from modern equipment and electronic inter-connectivity, schools should have beautiful gardens and playgrounds that the students and their parents should feel attached to and responsible for. This helps connect the various constituencies without which no successful educational system can ever be constructed.

Douglas Clark