When I look back on my life in Jamaica, I wonder at how much the English impressed us. Why did so many Jamaicans think that to be English was to be classy, sophisticated, knowledgeable… and everything else we hoped to become? No, it was not just me. It was the entire middle and upper class. In my mind, I can still hear how Jamaican friends said “for me” when they came home from school in England. They put the emphasis on the “for.” I suppose they were overcompensating for the Jamaican “fi-mi” (with the accent on the “mi”).
The same embarrassment at being associated with things Jamaican extended to the education system. In my time, no one who could afford to send their children to a private school would have dreamed of sending them to a free “elementary school.” Yet, after I failed to learn anything useful at the preparatory schools my parents scrimped to send me to, it was a retired elementary school teacher who tutored me so I could win a scholarship to a secondary school. There were no free secondary schools in Jamaica back then, and my father, who was an agricultural instructor, would have found it difficult to pay my school fees.
I won a scholarship to Munro College, which at that time was modeled after an English boarding school. I am sure it has changed over the 55 years since I left, but when I went there, the teachers were from England; we called them “masters” and addressed them as “sir.” The school copied everything, good and bad, that prevailed in English private schools (which, I am sure you know, were called “public schools” for no good reason). There was even a “fag” system in which younger students had to make beds, clean shoes and generally wait on the older boys.
To say I hated Munro would be an understatement. Years after I left, I used to have nightmares about being back there. That may be one reason for my skepticism about private schools. I see them as a refuge for snobbery, for one thing.
I haven’t lived in Jamaica for decades, so I do not know how it is there, but in America, private schools (and “home schooling”) are often a means of avoiding desegregation and promoting religious bigotry.
So you will understand why I wasn’t too upset when I read an item in today’s Daily Gleaner reporting that Jamaican parents are pulling their children out of private schools because of economic conditions in the island. The Gleaner quoted Jasper Lawrence, chief education officer in the Ministry of Education, as saying there has been a sudden influx of pupils into the public education system. According to the report, the government was importing portable classrooms to handle the crisis.
“There are classrooms that we can transport to where the space is needed, so we will be importing portable classrooms from South Florida,” Mr. Lawrence was quoted as saying. The Gleaner added that the ministry was “moving to ensure adequate staffing for primary schools.”
On the other side of the equation, Basil Tabannor, president of the Jamaica Independent Schools Association, was quoted as saying the institutions were struggling to keep afloat in today’s economic climate.
I am sure there are excellent private schools in Jamaica – and in America. My son went to Mr. DeSouza’s little school, and learned enough to wn a free place at Kingston College. But I won’t shed too many tears if the global economic collapse forces private schools out of business.
I believe governments would then have a heightened incentive – and more resources – to improve public education, which seems to need a lot of improvement not only in Jamaica but also in America (and I suspect throughout the world).