Speech by the Prime Minister

Address By The Most Honourable Andrew Holness ON, PC, MP Prime Minister of Jamaica At the Handing Over of Tablets to Calabar Infant and Primary on May 14, 2021

Good morning again.

Now, let me acknowledge Councillor Rosalie Hamilton. You’re a longstanding councillor, you’ve been in this area representing for more than 20 years Rosie; very good, longstanding, and faithful councillor.

Let me acknowledge the principal and vice-principal of your school.

Let me acknowledge the Superintendent who is doing an amazing job and her team that is here.

I know that this area, MP Williams, is not an easy area to manage and to service, but I wanted the people of Central Kingston to know that we know and understand the issues you face in this community and at another event, I’m going to address those issues specifically, but one of the issues you do face, which is facing all of Jamaica now, is access to learning and the Government is doing the best it can with the limited resources available to us because of the COVID pandemic.

You would have all heard and understood that we have lost significant revenues, almost $2 billion from tourism alone. We have had a 10%, 11% decline in our economy. And at the same time, we’ve had to spend more on health and security, so there is a challenge for resources, but we are doing the best we can with the resources that we have.

We have taken the decision to allow the exit examination grades to return to face-to-face teaching and learning. The exit examination grades would be the PEP students in grade 6, the CSEC students in grade 11 and the CAPE students in grade 13, some in grade 12, that would also include students who are sitting the NVQ and students who are sitting City and Guilds.

Just to give you some context, there are 39,000 students in Jamaica registered for PEP at the grade 6 level to do the ability test and that is scheduled for May 26th.  So, in a few days time you will be doing your grade six examinations.

There are 13,951 students who are registered in the public system to do CAPE and there are 45,174 students registered to do the CSEC examinations. There are 24,000 students registered to do City and Guilds examinations and 16,000 students registered to do the NCTVET-NVQs. I wanted to give you those figures, so that you would have some context as to the magnitude of the challenge faced.

Now, let’s start with the 39,000 students who are registered to do PEP. Many of these students would not have had access to internet to start with at home. Some would not have devices to access the internet. And I know many of them would be relying on their parents devices, whether it is on their phone or tablets and I know many parents would have had to stay at home with their children to ensure that they are focusing on the online learning platforms, whether it is the internet, or they are learning via television or radio. 

I know that some parents have had to become teachers because the teachers would send the homework to their WhatsApp and then they would have to sit down with their children to go through it, so there is a significant challenge in the education system today. Many of our students would not be learning at the level, pace and stage at which they should be were they in the normal modality of face-to-face learning, so we know that there is a learning loss taking place.

We’re very concerned that this generation of grade six, this cohort of grade six, would be behind when they transition to grade seven, we are not going to allow that to affect the remainder of their education life, so whatever we have to do to catch up on what you have lost and to ensure that you have the foundation skills to advance to higher learning, the Government of Jamaica is committed to ensuring that this is done.

I want to give you that assurance as children and to give that assurance to your parents who are also looking on. It is something that is near and dear to my heart and I’m going to ensure that you are not adversely affected because of the measures that we have had to put in place to control the pandemic.

So, the Government has put in place measures to ensure that you have access to the internet. One of the things that we’re doing is developing a new framework for having broadband internet access right across Jamaica. That is to ensure that every household in Jamaica can have access to broadband either through wired service, internet coming into your home through fibre optics or wireless service through other means that are possible. 

That programme has started in terms of planning and we are quite well-advanced and we’re giving ourselves two years in which to have it at an advanced stage of completion. We recognize that the new society, the new world that you will live in will all be digital, and that the digital world requires a highway to carry information and that highway is your broadband internet and we are going to make sure that every single Jamaican has access to that highway coming straight to your home, that’s our commitment

In the short term, with the broadband access, internet access that now exists, the second challenge is to ensure that you have the devices to get on that digital highway. So, using the analogy, we have to make sure that you have a car at least to travel on that highway. That car is your tablet, that is what is going to carry you on the digital broadband highway.

Presently, we estimate that around 70% of learners have access to the internet. Some might have very slow access and others have very fast access. People who can afford fast broadband service, their children are likely to do better, especially in the pandemic than those who can’t afford fast access or afford any access at all. So, you can see that access to the internet is going to determine how well you do as a person, can you imagine that?

So, it’s not just the education you get and the school you go to, it is also the ability of your household to afford access to the internet, which is why the Government is moving very quickly to ensure that all Jamaicans, regardless of your socio-economic circumstances can have access to the internet.

And secondly, to place a device in every household in the hands of every child who can’t afford one, so that you can get access to whatever highway information that comes to your home, whether it is a fast one or a slow one, at least get on it until we can ensure that everyone can get unto the fast highway.

So, we estimate that presently in Jamaica about 70% of learners have access to some form of device that will get them on the information highway and in this room, just as I was speaking a phone rang, one of our learners has a little phone, and I’m sure it’s a smartphone that you can do a little surfing on the internet, download a PDF file and  read it or get the classroom on your WhatsApp and if we did a survey, that would probably be true. 70% of the students here would have some form of access. 30% would have no form of access at all. Our focus is trying to get to that 30% so what we have done, and I just wanted to bring some facts to the public, because when we started, we estimated that there was a significant deficit that we needed to give out over two hundred thousand in order to catch up to where we should be.

Currently, we have now either given out or in the process of procuring 123,000 devices; we haven’t given up. There are about 500,000 learners in the system for which the Government would want to focus on and that would be between the early childhood ages, the primary ages- all primary ages in particular and the high school ages particularly those entering high school, those doing grades 10 and 11. So, in all, about 500,000, and we have so far of that 500,000, we have 123,000 devices that we have procured.

Now, within that 500,000, as I had said before, some persons would already have a device. Some persons are already connected. Some households, they have the income that they can buy the best tablet and afford the fastest internet speed so we’re not focusing on those persons.  We’re focussing on ensuring that our PATH students get devices and I’m told by the minister of education that they have distributed already 40,000 tablets to students in grades four, five and six in our primary schools.

The Government procured and is in the process of distributing 15,000 laptops for our PATH students between grades 10 and 13. I hope the procurement moves quickly so that our students can get these tablets and laptops, even for the few weeks before their examinations begin.

The Government has procured another 16,000 tablets. They are in the process now and that would go to students in grades seven to nine in the high school system.

We introduced an interesting programme. There are some households who have some info that they are able to get into the tablets or laptop market, meaning that they could purchase, but they may not have enough to complete the purchase.  So what Government is doing with those in order to maximize its resources is that the Government created the programme called Own Your Own Device, where we would give a voucher of $20,000, we call it the eVoucher, to each household who can participate so they would be able to show that they have some of the resources to put towards purchasing a device and the Government would assist with a voucher for $20,000, and that is working very well.

To date 12,000 households have redeemed their vouchers so they may not buy the tablets and the laptops that we are buying. What they would do is probably put some more money on it and get a better version of the tablet or the laptop, but it helps. So, we are supporting that segment of our demographics and ensuring that they too can participate in getting a device.

We’ve also engaged our civil society and our private sector and to date the one laptop or one tablet per child initiative, which was rolled out in October 2020, this has done very well. And here I would like to commend diaspora members who have contributed and our Consul General in New York, who has marshalled significant support internationally and from our diaspora to secure tablets for our schools in Jamaica and so far, this initiative has garnered 16,000 tablets and 785 laptops. So, when you put it all together, we have not done too badly. Mobilizing from September last year to now, to get 123,000 devices, that is laudable and significant, and we are making a further allocation, which you would have heard of by the Minister of Finance a few weeks ago called Serve Jamaica where each Member of Parliament will be given resources to acquire a hundred devices more than likely those devices will be tablets and so that is going to go right across Jamaica; that’s another 6,300 devices added to this.

Now, I have taken on this initiative as well, because I think it is a meaningful initiative and I myself have raised resources to acquire over a thousand tablets and we have given out more than 500 so far, and we’re going to be giving out more. But let me pause here, we will be giving out the tablets but because of the whole COVID rules and now that we are slowly changing the protocols, I have decided to move as quickly as we can to ensure that students have these tablets particularly the exit grades so that they can use them for the few weeks that they have to prepare for their exams.

I would encourage all Jamaicans who want to help the education system, that this is a good way to do it. What I have seen for myself is that the students appreciate getting these devices. They care them and they protect them because they understand how valuable it is in ensuring their life chances. Yes, they are going to play games on it. Yes, they are going to make mischief with it but in general, these are just some of the exigencies of getting our children articulate and mobile in the digital world.

We have to supervise them, and we have to guide them, but the tablets, the laptops, the computers, these are the pen and paper of the digital generation and we must empower our children with these tools; they are going to make the best of them. So, I would encourage our private sector, I would encourage civil society in Jamaica. Again, I thank our diaspora and our local private sector here who have contributed, please contribute more. The Government of Jamaica is going to make even more budgetary allocations to ensure that the 30% who is absolutely without a device that they get connected and that we support others who have partial funding to ensure that they can purchase devices as well.

So I just thought I would bring this to the attention of the nation. There’s a lot being said, and sometimes the criticisms become the state of understanding and they are not always true. People don’t take the time to research and equally it can be said that sometimes the Government doesn’t take the time to tell the country exactly what they’re doing and the benefits that the people are getting.

Sometimes the Government doesn’t take the time to place things into context because we probably expect that people will put all the pieces together and have a better understanding of the true picture. The true picture is that yes, there is a major challenge with learning loss. Yes, it will have a long-term impact on the output of the education system and the quality of certification and the quality of skills in the society. It is not an irredeemable situation. It is a situation that can be corrected.

The Ministry of Education has been mandated to do so and that will mean that it is highly likely that programmes will continue throughout summer, so parents be prepared. Once the COVID measures allow for it, there is likely to be classes going through summer so you should pay close attention to the learning gaps of your children and ensure that they participate in the programmes that will see to the correction of those learning gaps.

There will be remediation obviously in the grades to which they transition and as parents, you should ensure that the additional, the extra lessons that the minister spoke about in her presentation a few weeks ago, that your children participate in those. It is all of us as Jamaicans, parents and family members, it is our duty to ensure that our children get the solid education they deserve.

So, children, thank you very much for listening. Parents, thank you for being so patient as I go through this, but it is very important that we bring the nation up to date.

God bless you and thank you.