NN54, December 2016

‘Free, Equitable and Quality Primary and Secondary Education’ in Jamaica – Reality or a Pipe Dream?
Pages 53-54

Keywords: Jamaica; education; social-class; colonial

Summary: Despite huge investment in education, postcolonial legacies and inadequate resources have, inter alia, posed difficulties for the achievement of goals of free education, equity and quality in Jamaican schools. The SDG4 target of ‘free, equitable and quality’ education is a mirage.


Key goals of education in post-independence Jamaica include free education at the primary and secondary levels, access, equity and improvement in the quality of education. Despite its huge debt and weak economy presently assisted by the IMF, Jamaica has invested heavily in education to achieve these goals. Between 2005-2010, for example, investment in education as  a percentage of GDP increased from 5.3 to 6.1 percent which exceeds the average (5.2%) for developed countries (CAPRI, 2012) and in 2010/2011, 13.4% of the national budget was spent on education (Miller and Munroe 2014).  But is education really free and are goals of equity and quality being achieved? 

Manley (1974: 160) envisioned Jamaica as a ‘a classless society in which upward and downward mobility are determined exclusively by individual merit’ but despite the efforts of his democratic socialist government of the 1970s and beyond, this has remained an elusive dream, not least because “the roots of inequalities in access, equity, quality…lie deeply buried in (our) colonial past’ (King, 1998: 46). At that time, King explains, secondary and elementary education were administered by separate bodies and this had the effect of driving a wedge between the middle and upper class on the one hand and the lower social class on the other. Education was not designed to provide equitable education but rather as a tool for social stratification. Jamaica is a prime example of what Hickling–Hudson (2011: 459) has described as ‘the hegemony of social class-divided and unequally gendered model of education’.


The effect of social privilege is evident from the early years.  Children who attend privately owned  preparatory schools come from the middle/upper social class. They outperform their largely lower social class peers in the public primary schools by as much as 30 percentage points in the Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT) (CAPRI, 2012) and the boys in these schools do much better than their primary peers. Success at the GSAT and to a large extent social class upbringing   determine entry to the prestigious ‘British grammar school type’– the traditional high schools (THS) which are characterized by a middle/upper class culture.  Children who failed the GSAT are largely from the lower social class and they enter Upgraded High Schools (UHS) which pursue a more technical and vocational oriented curriculum. The curriculum of the THS   prepares the students to sit the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC). Despite the fact that   the majority of passes at CSEC (over 70%) are in the vocationally oriented subjects most of the students in the UHS who pursue a vocational curriculum, are deprived of the opportunity to take these exams (Craig, 1998).

Free education

The situation is further exacerbated by the periodic political mantra ‘free education’ which is used as a carrot by politicians to win over voters. But free education is an illusion.  Public schools are given a subvention fund which covers staff and related costs and a tuition fund which is expected to cover essentials including class materials, maintenance and utilities. These fees are sufficient to cover neither such costs nor other costs such as securing school property and supplementing school feeding programmers. Schools therefore charge an auxiliary fee which at the secondary level can range from US$50-US$80 per student. This is way beyond the pockets of lower social class parents who also cannot afford the huge sums of money for extra lessons after school hours for which the more well-to-do   parents pay teachers in order to increase  their children’s chances to succeed at the GSAT and CSEC (Stewart 2015).


Children from the lower social class are also at a disadvantage with regard to quality of educational provision. While quality in learning as a ‘process’ evident in learner-centred pedagogy, independent and creative thinking, problem-solving and the integration of technology in teaching and learning has been difficult to achieve in any school type because of the persistence of teacher-centeredness (Marshall 2007), the development of problem-solving and creative thinking skills comes at a price as the smaller classes which enable these are found in ‘extra lessons’. Despite the fact that the THS are better provided with technology than the UHS, inadequate outlets in classrooms, limited availability of the Internet, loss of trained teachers due to migration are amongst reasons given for technology use falling short of its mark. The inequity of the social class divide is also evident    when   quality is seen as ‘outcome’, measured in terms of success at examinations. The GSAT is a high stakes competition for access to quality, and each year about 30% of the age 11 cohort either fail or do not reach the standard required for taking the examination.  Pass rates of 69% in English Language and 40% in Mathematics at CSEC in 2011, with girls being the most successful, are considered “positive, indicating improving quality within the context of expanding entries’ (Miller and Munroe, 2014: 245), but these figures obscure the fact that they represent only about 57% and 48% respectively of the grade 11 cohort that was eligible to take the examination. The excluded   languish in the UHS. Furthermore, the THS are so determined to retain their places at the top of the league tables that CSEC results generate that they cream off their students and only enter for the exams those they know will pass. 


The challenges that Jamaica faces in achieving ‘free, equitable and quality’ education, as in the SDG4, are rooted not only in its colonial legacy, but the inability of the Ministry of Education to enforce policy. The Reform of Secondary Education (ROSE), for example was an intervention designed in part to narrow the social divide and to improve quality by instituting a common curriculum in the lower secondary grades.  The UHS embraced it but the THS closed its doors to it. The elite did not like its ‘levelling’ nature. Exacerbating the challenges are the   international donor agencies such as the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank which have given loans to support interventions in education to improve quality and equity at the primary and secondary levels, but while these interventions have fallen short of achieving their goals, the loans still add to the country’s persistent indebtedness.



Caribbean Policy Research Institute (CAPRI). (2012). Prisms of Possibility: A Report Card on Education in Jamaica. Kingston: PREAL and CAPRI.

Hickling-Hudson, A. (2011). Teaching to Disrupt Preconceptions: Education for Social Justice in the Imperial Aftermath. Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education Vol 41, No.4, 453-465.

King, R. (1998). Educational Inequality in Jamaica: The Need for Reform. Institute of Education Annual Vol.1, 61-77.

Manley, M. (1974). The Politics of Change: A Jamaican Testament. London: Andre Deutsch.

Marshall, P. (2007). Teaching Strategies used by Teacher Educators and their Influence on Beginning Teachers' Practice. Journal of Education and Development in the Caribbean Vol 9, 1&2., 70-96.

Miller, E., and Munroe, G. (2014). Education in Jamaica: Transformation and Reformation. In E. Thomas (Ed), Education in the Commonwealth Caribbean and Netherlands Antilles (pp. 221-247). London: Bloomsbury.

Stewart, S. (2015). Schooling and Coloniality: Conditions Underlying 'Extra Lessons ' in Jamaica. Postcolonial Directions in Education Vol 4, No.1, 25-52.


To cite this article: Jennings-Craig, Z. (2016) "Free, Equitable and Quality Primary and Secondary Education" in Jamaica: Reality or a Pipe Dream?  NORRAG News, 54, 53-54. Retrieved from: http://www.norrag.org/fileadmin/Full%20Versions/NN54.pdf