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Formal education of children in Jamaica.

Jamaica's system for the care and education of 4- to 6-year-olds has been in place for much of the 20th century. Education reform in this developing Caribbean country generally consists of modifications to existing structures implemented in response to expressed community needs. Usually, the government provides partial funding for new programs only after results are identified (Bernard van Leer Foundation, 1972).

For most of this century, the Jamaican government decreed early education to be the "responsibility of the parent or, in their default or inability to meet it, the responsibility of the local community" (Bernard van Leer Foundation, 1972, p. 12). Therefore, local communities assumed the responsibility for providing out-of-home care for the majority of 4- to 6-year-olds who need it. When the need for care became obvious, Jamaican citizens took it upon themselves to find answers. This grassroots effort has served Jamaican children well. The resulting program still serves the majority of preschool children enrolled in early education. Later, government support helped pay for teachers' salaries and benefits. Thus, community-based programs have been a viable approach.

The Ministry of Education's Early Childhood Education Unit reports that approximately 82 percent of Jamaican children between the ages of 4 and 6 are in government- or community-based schools; the figure exceeds 90 percent when children enrolled in private schools are taken into account. Unfortunately, because of unreliable reporting, it is impossible to give an exact figure for this age group. Even without precise numbers, however, the scope of available pre-primary education is monumental when one considers that Jamaica spends 49 percent of its current budget on debt servicing.

The History of Early Education

The education of very young Jamaican children began in the late 19th century when a few women teachers were allowed to teach a small number of children in primary and infant schools. Many more children began needing custodial care in the 1920s and 1930s when many mothers began to work in factories. Churches and individuals rallied to support the development of infant centers and private schools to meet the resulting need for out-of-home care (Johnson, 1990). Despite this strong response, more children needed care than could be served by the limited number of available facilities and programs.

It was not until the 1930s that an attempt was made to formalize the system of schools caring for young children. Rev. Henry Ward is credited with developing community schools that later became known as "basic schools." In 1938, Ward alerted the Jamaican government to the critical need for a more organized system of care and training for preschool-age children. Years later, in an interview for the Jamaican newspaper Daily Gleaner, Ward recalled establishing a school for 3- to 6-year-olds who had been "left unprotected, running about the streets while their parents went to work . . . a pathetic picture with dangerous possibilities. The situation was a challenge and we felt that something should be done" (Bernard van Leer Foundation, 1972, p. 12). The first community-organized school for children under 6 was established in Islington, in the parish of St. Mary in 1938.

In 1941, Ward and his associates presented a report to the Jamaican Board of Education calling for the establishment of "play centres" as an integral part of the Jamaican education system. These centres were to include "organized play/stories; action songs; lessons on children's pets and other familiar creatures; care of a children's garden; foundation work in reading, writing and number work; handiwork - a far cry indeed from the sterile, repetitious routine of chanting and memorizing, governed by the threat of corporal punishment that in fact became predominant in . . . schools" (Bernard van Leer Foundation, 1972, p. 12). The Ward report included additional recommendations concerning teacher qualifications, facility size and space, equipment and administrative procedures for basic schools. The term Ward coined and preferred, "play centre," was dropped in response to parental objections and replaced by "basic school."

The government took no significant action on any of the recommendations, although it did offer limited subsidies to help develop basic schools throughout the island. The backbone of early Jamaican education, however, remained a widespread grassroots effort that established a number of community-based and supported preschool education classrooms.

When Head Start began in the United States in the late 1960s, Jamaica looked to that program for useful ideas. Jamaican educators were especially interested in American ideas on compensatory education, and believed that basic schools provided a framework for its assimilation. In 1972, an early education report in Jamaica suggested that:

Clearly if it could be shown that a "head start"-type programme could tackle the educational manifestations of social deprivation in Harlem, there might be a strong case for attempting a similar approach among children of equally deprived communities in Jamaica, particularly since basic schools, strongly rooted in the most deprived sections of Jamaican society, offered a medium through which such a strategy might be applied and the University of the West Indies Institute of Education a vehicle for theoretical and experimental work. (Bernard van Leer Foundation, 1971, p. 10)

With the compensatory perspective in mind, a team based at the University of the West Indies worked to strengthen the education program based on the basic school concept. The team was under the guidance of D. R. B. Grant, who shared Ward's vision, and was funded by the Bernard van Leer Foundation from the Netherlands. Basic schools began to focus, in part, on economically disadvantaged children. In addition, they set new goals for enhancing the skills of teachers, improving the curriculum, developing teaching materials and improving physical facilities. The innovative teacher training program developed during this time by Grant and his associates still serves as the model for Jamaica's community-based programs and several other developing countries have adopted it.

Over the past 20 years, several other types of early education programs were developed in Jamaica for children under 6. These include infant schools, infant departments and independent/preparatory schools.

Types of Pre-Primary Programs

Infant schools and infant departments are pre-primary education programs for 4- to 6-year-olds. Financed by the government, these schools charge no fees and are available to all children. Infant departments, established by the government in the 1970s, are part of the primary/all age schools and are supervised by the schools' principal. Infant schools have existed in Jamaica since the latter part of the 19th century. An infant school is often housed in its own building and is administered by its own principal. It may, however, be part of a primary school. Both government programs are under the immediate supervision of an education officer from the Early Childhood Education Unit of the Ministry of Education.

Independent or preparatory schools are private institutions that serve a wider age range than basic schools, infant schools or infant departments. Usually sponsored/managed by a church or private body, they do not receive any financial assistance from the government. Consequently, capital and recurrent expenditures are dependent upon the income obtained from tuition or other fees. Preparatory schools are registered with the Ministry of Education.

These three programs serve a very small portion of the preschool-age population in Jamaica. Currently, there are 119 infant schools and departments serving more than 16,000 children and 126 registered independent schools that serve 4- to 6-year-olds, as well as some children younger than 4 (Statistical Institute of Jamaica, 1992). Basic schools are the chief provider of early education and child care. They are open to all children between the ages of 4 and 6 (some programs serve 3-year-olds) and are established by the community with or without the assistance of the private sector. When there is a perceived need - that is, at least 20 children under the age of 6 in a community of at least 1,000 people - the community selects a building committee. The committee solicits financial support and oversees the construction of school buildings. Presently, 1,627 basic schools serve 108,438 Jamaican children (Statistical Institute of Jamaica, 1992).

Since 1982, all Jamaican pre-primary programs have been under the supervision of the Ministry of Education's Early Childhood Education Unit. The Ministry establishes regulations for pre-primary level programs, which are set out in the Code of Regulations, and sets program goals and objectives.

For years, support for basic schools came from a variety of private sources, such as churches, service clubs, welfare/voluntary organizations and philanthropic organizations. Continued prodding by Grant, Ward and other early education proponents, as well as parents, resulted in more government funding. That funding, however, added little to what the private sector provided. Over the years, a process for establishing and maintaining community schools has developed under the guidance of the Ministry of Education, the University of the West Indies and community leaders. The government does not build basic schools, but it may make a small contribution toward the upkeep of the building. Since 1975, the government has subsidized teachers' salaries in basic schools. Ultimately, the basic school is financed by subsidies from a sponsoring body, the government and minimal fees paid by parents. The sponsoring body is usually a group of six community members who manage the school. The school's principal receives input and support from a Ministry of Education officer.

Basic schools have many concerns, but one of particular note today is teacher qualifications. The basic school teacher is required to have at least three subjects on the Jamaican School Certificate, including English and mathematics. Previously, no formal training in early education was required. While the Early Childhood Education Unit of the Ministry of Education concedes control over basic schools to the community, it has always provided support in the "form of training and supervision of the basic school teachers and the provision of a small subsidy toward teachers' salaries and the feeding program in those basic schools which maintain a given standard" (Gilmour, 1983, p. ii). One of the Ministry of Education's major responsibilities is ensuring the quality of the teaching-learning activities (Ministry of Education, 1991). Inservice programs at resource centers provide the training and support, focusing on teacher development and curriculum renewal, stressing sound education practice and promoting a multi-disciplinary and coordinated services approach to early education (Ministry of Education, 1991). Resource centers are set up in parishes throughout the island, and are operated by teacher trainers employed by the Ministry of Education. Teacher trainers or education officers conduct bimonthly workshops and demonstrate solutions to problems faced by basic school teachers. Attendance is mandatory.

Training personnel are deployed in every parish of Jamaica to work with all pre-primary programs. One of the principal responsibilities of the teacher trainers is to upgrade the skills of approximately 4,000 basic school teachers, primarily through inservice work.

Practicing early childhood teachers receive certification after completing a two-year training course at a teacher college. These teachers are required to up-grade their academic training through evening and summer classes or through a one-year post-certificate course. Both routes lead to a diploma in education. Teachers with these degrees usually work in infant schools or departments.

A Look to the Future

Local communities, the Early Childhood Education Unit and the University of the West Indies have all made great strides in the provision of education and care for preschoolers in Jamaica. The government takes pride in the fact that over 90 percent of 4- to 6-year-olds receive early education and care. But there is no room for complacency. Early education in Jamaica is underfunded and teacher qualifications must be improved, particularly for basic school teachers. One current program, organized by the University of the West Indies with funding from the Bernard van Leer Foundation, seeks to "provide a cadre of teacher training personnel who can define early childhood education at a national level, offer leadership in curriculum development and renewal, and spearhead the integrated services approach, thus correcting the weaknesses of the present basic school system" (Corothers, 1990, p. 21).

The Ministry of Education is trying to improve the quality of teaching by requiring all early childhood educators to be trained in early education theory and practice. In addition, the government has mandated academic training from several sources: inservice programs, teacher training colleges and/or the University of the West Indies. Better salaries, contingent upon skills upgrades, could entice more teachers to remain in the system. A greater number of well-qualified and dedicated supervisors is also important.

Following independence from colonial rule in 1962, the government set up a series of 5-year development plans. The 1990-95 plan identified education as pivotal to Jamaica's development and deserving of special attention. Specifically, the plan singled out the development of qualitative improvement in basic education and the expansion of pre-primary education. Unfortunately, a deteriorating economy has prevented many of the objectives from being met.


Jamaica has moved beyond simply meeting its children's most basic needs. Infant and child mortality, nutrition, immunization and preschool enrollment are all at acceptable levels. Yet, the conditions of some children, particularly those from depressed urban communities, still have much room for improvement. The program's success depends upon training and monitoring; educators' skills must be continuously upgraded. With systems already in place, the challenge now is to both maintain them and extend their scope.


Bernard van Leer Foundation. (1972). Early education in Jamaica. The Hague, Netherlands: Author.

Corothers, F. (1990). Early childhood focus. Kingston, Jamaica: Ministry of Education.

Gilmour, M. (1983). Early childhood education readiness programme. Kingston, Jamaica: Ministry of Education.

Johnson, M. (1990). Early childhood focus. Kingston, Jamaica: Ministry of Education.

Ministry of Education. (1991). Guidelines 3676 for management and administration of basic schools. Kingston, Jamaica: Author.

Statistical Institute of Jamaica. (1992). Demographic statistics. Kingston, Jamaica: Government Printing Office.

Johnetta Wade Morrison is Assistant Professor, Human Development and Family Studies, University of Missouri-Columbia. Valentine Milner is in Program Development, MICO College, Centre for Child Assessment and Research in Education, Kingston, Jamaica.
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Author:Milner, Valentine
Publication:Childhood Education
Date:Jun 22, 1995
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