In October, Andrew Holness became the ninth prime minister of Jamaica, but also the youngest in its history and the first prime minister born post-1962 independence. Holness, a three-term member of parliament, was formerly the minister of education and the leader of government business in Jamaica’s House of Representatives.
Speculation about a change in leadership first emerged in late September when reports surfaced that Prime Minister Bruce Golding, Holness’ predecessor, had tendered his resignation. Many Jamaicans have offered their individual speculations for the move; while Golding hasn’t addressed any of these directly, he did say in an address to the nation that the challenges of the last four years had taken a toll on him.
The task of prime minister is a daunting one, especially in a nation like Jamaica—a developing country in a global recession. The premier must combat the unacceptable level of crime and violence, the increase in poverty, a high debt-to-GDP ratio, food insecurity, human rights issues—including extrajudicial matters and summary killings—and the state of the education system.
All of these issues are important, but education is a key concern. How will Prime Minister Holness strengthen the education system? Indeed, it is a cornerstone of Jamaica’s national development plan, known as Vision 2030.
But the claims of educational achievement under his leadership seem to be an overstretch, and his decision to blame teachers for systemic issues also is unlikely to fix our education system. Going forward, Holness has said he will increase access to education to lift people out of poverty. But the majority of elementary school children are enrolled; instead Holness needs to concentrate on improvements at the higher levels—particularly the secondary and tertiary ones.
The correlations between education and poverty reduction, as exemplified by case studies from multilateral institutions, are certainly important factors in the case of Jamaica. But our educational challenges are based on a variety of factors such as violence and poor attendance and teaching methods—all of which severely affect the quality of output. Quality is the problem; what and how do students learn when they go to school?
Many of our schools are overpopulated, yet there were cuts in the capital budget for monies set aside to build news schools and classrooms. Some schools that are supposed to accommodate 600 students have triple the occupancy figures. This creates an unwanted and uncomfortable learning environment.
For education to improve, the new prime minister must address these questions:
1. What is the policy framework that will be implemented to ensure students perform better and leave primary and secondary schools literate?
2. Is there any way the private sector can get involved, particularly through public-private partnerships?
3. What strategies will be used to ensure more Jamaicans—especially disabled youth and rural youth—are accessing all levels of education (primary, secondary and tertiary)?
4. What will be done to improve infrastructure to meet our educational demands?
Prime Minister Holness may have earned high marks while heading the education ministry, but now is not the time to sit back. As prime minister, there’s a real opportunity to use his background to make significant progress in what is one of the key challenges for Jamaican society today.
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