History of Education in Jamaica

The history of education in Jamaica is perhaps best explained and understood in the context of the island’s colonial history. The education system and its administration were modeled after the British system; and many of the developments in the history of Jamaican education can be seen as responses to events such as the abolition of slavery 1834, the onset of public elections in 1944, and the achievement of independence in 1962. Much of the recent history of education in Jamaica has been driven by the perceived need to develop “homegrown” responses to economic, social, and political pressures on the island and in the Caribbean region.

Prior to enacting the Act of Emancipation in 1834, the history of Jamaica indicates very little in the way of a formal and cohesive education system for whites and no system whatsoever for educating the indigenous people and African slaves.  While a small number of the “well-off” English colonists could afford to send their sons back to the “mother country” for schooling, others hired private tutors. Those who were less affluent sent their sons to one of the few free schools that were established through bequests from wealthy planters and merchants. The curriculum in the free schools was based on that offered by similar schools in Great Britain and was intended “to offer a classical education to young gentlemen so that they would be properly fitted to take their place in society.” A few slave children received some schooling at plantation schools established by foreign missionaries, but their education dealt mostly with religion and the virtues of submission. At least some of these plantation schools provided education for girls as well as boys.

History provides little documentation regarding the education of girls in the colony of Jamaica prior to 1770, when Wolmer’s Free School initiated a modified curriculum for girls.  This curriculum was designed to prepare young girls for the rigors of running a home or for employment as seamstresses and mantuamakers. A small minority of educated girls were also able to secure teaching positions on the island.

Once slavery was abolished in Jamaica in 1834, the British saw education as an important means towards incorporating the ex-slaves into the colonial economy and to increase the odds of maintaining a peaceful lower class. In the several years immediately following emancipation, missionary societies developed a system of elementary education for the newly freed slaves. This system was taken over by the colonial government beginning in the 1860s.  Many historians believe that the eventual government sponsorship of Jamaica’s system of secular education was a response to the conflicts between propertied classes that led to the Morant Bay Rebellion of 1865.

The post-emancipation education system in Jamaica emphasized skills that would help prepare children for eventual employment as estate workers. The primary grades of this schooling focused heavily on the proverbial three “R’s”—reading, writing and arithmetic—with some added education in religious training and some occasional lessons in geography and history.  In addition to these lessons, boys were given training in agriculture and other manual arts, and girls received lessons in sewing and domestic science. These separate educational tracks for boys and girls were formalized in the Lumb Report of 1898. The report emphasized the necessity for agricultural training in order to counteract trends seen as threatening to the colonial economy and society: students were developing an aversion for manual labor and were moving from the countryside to the cities and towns to take up clerkships and other similar occupations.

Although the school system in Jamaica continued to expand in the early years of the twentieth century, education continued to be guided by the 19 century colonial practice of educating children to fit their station in life. As the relative number of British people in Jamaica began to decline, it became essential to move native Jamaicans into certain intermediate occupations, and this resulted in significant growth in the secondary school system and the creation of government scholarships for university study abroad programs.

Although secondary schooling at this time was not free of cost, elementary schools began to hold annual scholarship examinations in order to allow some children to pursue education at this level—children who would otherwise not have been able to afford the fees. Educational historians characterize these movements as the beginnings of the struggle to change the secondary schools from “being comprised of students with the ‘ability to pay’ to students with the ‘ability to benefit from’ the education offered.”

During the 1930s, economic pressures associated with the Great Depression and the colonial system in general resulted in widespread unemployment among Jamaicans. This, coupled with perpetually low wages and widespread poverty and with the growing desire among Jamaicans for self-rule, led to the creation of groups such as the Jamaica Workers’ and Tradesmen’s Union (in 1934) and the Peoples’ National Party (in 1938). Mass protests and marches among the working poor and the unemployed became commonplace and frequently ended in rioting. The British responded with the Orde Brown Inquiry into labor conditions in the colony and the formation of the West India Royal Commission under Lord Moyne, which was charged with inquiring into the social, economic, and educational conditions underlying the unrest.

Between the years 1943-1944, the Kandel Report and the associated Plan for Post-Primary Education further addressed the educational, social, and economic conditions in the colony. These efforts focused strongly on establishing a system of post-primary education, one that would update and restructure the existing harsh socially segregated system of secondary education, which at that time was rife with class and color discrimination.  The Kandel Report and the Plan for Post-Primary Education also addressed the curriculum of education at the secondary level, and established a universal literary core for both boys and girls.  However, these reports also further solidified the gender-based vocational training “tracks” that were originally outlined and formalized in the Lumb Report.

From the 1940s until independence in 1962, much of the educational reform and restructuring in Jamaica was cursory at best, serving only, according to historians, to further the imperial interests of Great Britain.  Many believe that the lack of measurable reform in colonial education was due to a distrust of the island’s blacks and a lacking in confidence on the part of Great Britain that the blacks could manage their own affairs.

As part of a general trend toward the self-sufficiency of the island (and of the whole British Caribbean), the University of the West Indies (UWI) was founded in 1948 at Mona, Jamaica. This was an important step in establishing educational independence because Jamaica had been forced to import university graduates from Great Britain to serve as senior staff in secondary schools. The birth of the Department of Education at UWI in 1952 was a major step toward a completely a “home-grown” educational system.

The various processes leading towards self-rule and ultimate independence for Jamaica were sped up by the intricate events and forces that arose during and after World War II.  Many historians argue that the rejection of Nazi anti-Semitism and Aryan superiority by the British led the country to see that “the concepts of empire and of the trusteeship of a superior race” were simply untenable in the modern age.  One result of this change in philosophy was the revision of the Jamaican Constitution in 1944, which granted voting rights to all adults. The British additionally started the process of concluding its colonial economic exploitation by setting up a colonial development fund.

The conclusions of Lord Moyne’s report regarding Jamaican education were many, including that a lack of central control over the island’s primary schools had for years resulted in inefficient administration.  Moyne also pointed out that there was a lack of correspondence between the schools’ curricula and the primary needs of those living in Jamaica. The report recommended, among other things, that the curriculum at the nation’s primary schools be modified to include courses in health and hygiene, that preschools be established, that schools be organized into levels (Primary for six- to twelve-year-olds, and Junior for twelve- to-fifteen-year-olds), and that schools be brought up to modern standards with respect to buildings, sanitation, water purity, and school equipment. It is generally agreed that the Moyne Report also contributed impetus toward the granting of universal adult suffrage and (limited) self-rule in the colony.

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