Children! I love to be optimistic where they are concerned. But, I wonder if that optimism is misplaced.

Yesterday afternoon, I was seething with anger. Why? I had gone to the gas station to give my car more than another 20km of travel. A young boy, looking about 12 years old, came to the attendant and waited. Some words were exchanged, softly. The attendant gave the boy $100 and asked if a funeral “a keep” up the road; the boy said no. He went away. The attendant filled the car, and I went to pay. When I came back the boy was headed back to the gas station. I asked the attendant why the boy was just wandering around. “Bway, me nuh no,” he replied. I asked if the boy went to school and got a yes. When the boy arrived, I asked him what grade he was in, “Eight two,” he said twice. I asked him to add 20+42. He looked puzzled. He repeated the sum, and looked more puzzled. While he pondered, another boy, taller but looking maybe 13, came along. The attendant said he was always very chatty, so I should ask him the same question. So, I did. “20+42, sir?” I told him yes. They were both scratching their heads. At last, the first boy offered an answer: “70.” I shook my head. I told them that they couldn’t even rob a bank because they’d have no idea how much money they were stealing. I looked across the street at the broken-down footbridge and saw my metaphor for what they reflected of Jamaica: a bridge to nowhere.

I know, from these two random meetings, that some children are not being well-educated. We can wonder how far that goes. I don’t know why they are failing. I have a child their age, and know what opportunities and support she gets to keep her learning at a high level. She’s privileged, in that regard. Is the norm really so bad, though?

We were filled with hope and the glow of youthful prowess a few weeks ago, when high school athletes showed the world their talents. Our children can run. No doubt. However, I noted, when winners were being interviewed, many of them who did not seem comfortable with the simple questions. Many gave stock sportspeople answers, all clichés: “I gave 100 percent…I owe it to God…I must thank my mother…I just did what coach told me…” etc. I put some of that down to the situation that was unfamiliar and probably nerve-wracking, of being interviewed live for television. But, I wondered if they were also just unable to form good sentences. I’d noted it last year, too. Running can take you far, literally and educationally and maybe financially. But, it’s always good to have a solid education to fall back on. Did they have it, now, or will they have it by the time they graduate? We know that many of the high school athletic stars are struggling, academically. It’s an open secret, but not one that is set to be resolved by all the institutions concerned.

Available data show our young children are behind in their learning. (I’m not getting into the challenging gender differences in that process.) Many of the educational problems start when children are very young, and it’s understandable that agencies want to focus on early childhood development. It’s worth noting one passage from a UNICEF report:

‘There is almost universal enrolment of children in pre-primary schools (ages 3-5 years) – 96.8 per cent in 2004 (Jamaica Survey of Living Conditions, JSLC, 2006), with an attendance rate of approximately 71.3 per cent. While enrolment of children in pre-schools remains high, the quality of services is often poor. According to official estimates, fewer than one out of three children entering grade one were ready for primary level, and some 30 per cent of primary school dropouts were illiterate.’

If my arithmetic is correct, that means only about half of the children of primary level age are ready for that level of schooling.

There, you have the seeds of the problem. We have started behind, almost before the race has begun. If we add to this the fact that low attainment and low motivation go together and then meet their evil cousin, poor teaching, and we have a mixture that is spinning in such a downward direction that it’s hard to see a way upward.

However, it’s clear that many early childhood problems persist into the teenage years and stay uncorrected for the rest of adult life.

Look around Jamaica. We have the image of being a quaint place, but that’s another way of saying that our backwardness is all we have to offer. On balance, we have very few skills to offer ourselves or the world. I passed a container being used for business and saw its sign telling all “I am not *behined* the times…”. I drive daily past a lovely yellow and purple wall that has just been painted with the place’s address and offerings in large script: ‘333 anywhere LANE’? Would it matter to either ‘entrepreneur’ or their business much if I told them about their errors? Who would care? Would I need to proof read everything they wrote? The top skills are not really telling in a setting where the very basic is all that in question.

The consequences of educational failure are many, and I could go on a socioeconomic rant about causes and effects. No jobs. No good living conditions. Exploitation. Political bandoolism. Why do people have children? Do people have too many children? What can and do they do to help their children? What resources do parents have to support children? What is the State expected to do to help parents and children? What problems do schools have and what are they doing to overcome them? These are just a mere sampling of issues and questions that may come to mind.

The reasons for educational failure are many and complex, but the results are clear. Jamaica has been producing a nation of illiterate and innumerate people for decades. That’s easy to see. Several months ago, we were treated to the sign below, displayed so proudly, and saying so loudly what was too awful to acknowledge. Jamaicans are struggling with basic language.

A picture saying a thousand words

A picture saying a thousand words

I laughed, as did many, at the many mistakes in so few words. But, I knew the mistakes. Those who created the banner, did not know, or did not care.

If one looks around at the people doing work hustling on the streets or in markets or around tourist resorts, what do they tell us? This is no small portion of the population. All many people are able to do to earn a living is sell, mainly fruit, vegetables, drinks, and cooked food. Vending options have expanded, so we have newspapers sellers, windscreen washers, steering wheel sellers, sellers of phone chargers, etc. Admittedly, many market vendors know how to add and subtract and can even keep ledgers, so don’t get me wrong. Now, we also have the new ‘careers’ of security guards (uniform provided). We also have people willing to sell themselves and their children in many ways, and for small amounts. When you have no skills to trade, you can only trade yourself!

Complain all we want about slavery, but look how we also put ourselves in bondage.

The ‘production line’ keeps churning out models that cannot hold their place in a job market that requires being articulate with words and figures. There is no likely entry for them onto the ‘information superhighway’. They will be bystanders.

We have a society that cannot process literate and numerical messages well, so need clear visual and sound clues. Sure, we have newspapers with interesting and provocative arguments. But, most people get information from radio, television, and associates. So, when the information is wrong, it’s passed along fast. People tend to believe what they see and hear.

If we cannot process information well, we cannot reason well. People talk about finding other ways to resolve conflict than violence. Those other ways require reasoning skills. We cannot expect people to assess the risks to themselves of various actions because they cannot think through those actions.

When I’ve spent a morning at a basic school and see how all the children fight over the one deflated football that I brought, I see the elements of many families’ problems. It’s not even about the quality of what’s in demand, it’s just about access to it. Like hungry animals over a small scrap, these children tore at each other to get the ball, and have it for a few seconds. If I have to break up a fight every two minutes, is the regular teacher in a much better position when dealing with school resources that are in scarce supply in a room that is too small for the class?

If you look at the traffic accident statistics, it’s clear that many of them come from bad decision-making. We see it with drivers belted but passengers not wearing belts. We see it with motorbike riders with or without helmets and pillion riders rarely with helmets. It’s not just about having means.

I saw it this morning, with a driver coming downhill past the line of traffic in her direction, that was not moving, driving in my lane, expecting to find a gap back into her line before we met. It didn’t happen. I saw the problem approaching and stopped; she had continued, assuming and hoping for the gap. We met, about one yard apart. We were moving relatively slowly, but this is the essence of many collisions. People step into moving traffic hoping cars will stop, waving their arms as if they were magic wands.

We cannot look forward to better quality jobs that pay higher wages because we do not have a labour force that merits that sort of employment. Yes, we have good people, but they are at the margins. The vast majority of the best leave. That means we have the dregs and a little bit of cream on top. The bulk of the society isn’t up to scratch. We have not produced overqualified people in droves; the contrary–we’re stuffed with un- and under-qualified workers. Ask for ‘general labourers’ and look at the lines form. Put up signs that show demands for high-level technical skills and note how the lines are very short. People are right to be worried that foreign-owned hotel companies, for instance, are not looking to use Jamaican workers for their projects. In part it’s national preferences at play, but it’s also that our supply is not that good.

Even in the setting where my angst began–the gas station–the cashier did not know how to key in the digits for the sale, as the numbers were appearing on the screen in ascending value order, past the decimal point. I had to key in the figures for her! Incapable? Untrained? I wasn’t on the road to fix either, yesterday.

In a few weeks, we’ll go through another of those annual rituals that is all about delusion. The results from the GSAT exams will be announced and children will hear if they have their choices for high schools. Again, we know that some of these schools are successful at producing well-educated children, and many are not. But, the deck is loaded because the best get the best, and the others get the rest. It’s like top-level football, where teams with the deep pockets buy up the best talent, and manage to keep winning the main trophies. We note that the poorer clubs cannot attract enough top talent to compete well for long, even if they come up with the occasional surprise ‘giant killing’. In physics, like and unlike may attract, but not usually in social and economic spheres.

What that means, in other terms, is that society will have to carry upward those whom education leaves behind, because they are almost cast apart and must float away, even if the country progresses only slowly. But, the society cannot realistically do that because its head is barely above the water. With that deadweight of under-education pulling us down, how can we avoid drowning?

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