Prime Minister’s GSAT Award Ceremony
Thank you very much.
It was just the other day that I did my Common Entrance.
Firstly , let me congratulate you on your performance on the last sitting of GSAT and you will have the distinction to be the last generation of Jamaicans to sit that notorious examination and I’m seeing the broad smiles on the parents faces that you will no longer have to go through the very involved process which is GSAT because I gather that the parents say that it’s as if they are the ones sitting the exams; a very difficult period time but there is some good news. I gather though that there are some people who don’t think it is good news that the GSAT examinations will end and they will be replaced by a new examination called the PEP. It is the Primary Exit Profile, (PEP), sounds good.
Now, there is a reason why we have to transition from GSAT to a new method of examination. When we did not have universal secondary education meaning that students who went through the primary system had to have some means of filtering them and placing them into the limited high school places then based upon our history, our system the fairest way of rationing those limited spaces would be to put in place an exam that would select the best and brightest of the students. The GSAT exams tested your abilities in terms of some reasoning, some recall and later on was added the communications task; your ability to communicate. What it did was to test your knowledge, how well you have absorbed and internalized knowledge and content in the curriculum and based upon how well you performed on that test, then you would earn a place in a high school that you chose to go to. It was a means of rationing limited places and of course everyone is trying to get into the best schools, so it’s a really tight competition for the best spaces.
Sometimes when I recall as Minister of Education, I looked at the statistics and you would have in excess of two/ three thousand students applying for sometimes less than two hundred spaces in a school, so you can imagine the great levels of disappointment when students don’t get into the schools that they would really want to get into; their school of choice. Of course, the reason behind that is, there is a sense that not all schools are equal, that not all schools are delivering the same quality education and so it comes down to a life chance issue. If my child gets into a school that is not up to par, what would be the life chance of my child, will they get the opportunity to be successful and turn out to be the big lawyers and doctors that we wish for them.
The solution to the problem is multidimensional obviously. We can’t just rely on selecting the best and brightest by virtue of ability to recall, regurgitate and to absorb knowledge. We have to improve the secondary school system in the sense of increasing the number of spaces that are there which we have done. We can provide a space for every child exiting the primary system, but we also have to improve the standards of the high school so that they are all on the same performance levels. That work is continuing. We have put in place a whole series of measures to transform the system including the national educational inspectorate which is doing a fairly good job in bringing to public attention the performance of the schools and then of course you remember the NCEL, National College for Education Leadership, which is improving the quality of our educational leaders so there are improvements happening at the secondary level. It will take some time for all schools to be on par, but we also have to improve the teaching and learning at the primary level.
Important at the primary level is the literacy and basic education and setting out the Grade Four Literacy Test and making that a National exam and catching students earlier in the primary education system. We have seen on a year to year basis an improvement in the performance at GSAT but more importantly I believe we can now say we have almost solved the problem of illiteracy at the primary level.
I’m not aware of what the last scoring was but it is usually now in the 80’s- higher than that, but by the time they get to grade six they would have all been at a very high level of literacy and I gather that about ninety to ninety-five percent of the students at grade six are literate and have achieved mastering and that’s a big improvement. If that continues for the next twenty years, then we could say that we would have eliminated illiteracy in the society. We could then claim universal literacy generally in the society, but the challenge still remains. Are we educating our students to meet the current demands in our society? Are we educating our students in a way that will make them functional in the new society?
My view on it is that because we still see education almost as an elite endeavour and not necessarily a right we tend to limit the access to quality education by putting exams that are sometimes very difficult and you as parents can attest to it because if many of you were sitting the exams you wouldn’t be passing them at that level because we have to be setting the bar higher and higher in order to filter out the best to place them in the limited quality spaces but if we were to step back from this survival of the fittest type of education system to rethink education as something that everyone should have access to and not just access to any quality but to the best quality education then we wouldn’t need to have in place something like a GSAT.
If all schools were performing at the highest levels and in particular if our secondary schools were delivering the best quality education, there would be no need for GSAT once we put in place the infrastructure. Having stepped back in 2004 when we did the transformation commission report and we figured that we need to change the nature of the education system and we came up with PEP. This is not a new examination; this is something that has been contemplated now for more than a decade, now were about to implement it. It won’t be one exam that will determine your faith. Now you will be doing a series of exams over three years, so you will not have one exam determine your life chance. The exam is not only geared for the brightest, those who can read and assimilate and then regurgitate. It tests a broader range of skills, so we want to know how you function in the real world. Can you take the knowledge that you’ve learnt and apply to real world situation? Now, that’s profound, that’s fundamental to the growth and development of the Jamaican economy and our society. When we talk about creating a digital society and a knowledge-based economy we need people who can innovate, and innovation does not happen in a box. Innovative people think outside the box. They can imagine, they are not restricted, in their thought, they can apply knowledge to real world problems; they are solutions oriented.
For too long our education system has operated in such a way that if you don’t say what the book says, if you write it exactly as how the book says- knowledge is not like that. Now, this exam will take teachers out of their comfort zones because now you will be inspiring students to come with their own solutions, so it is not just a different type of exam, it will really take a different kind of approach to teaching as well. So, we can understand the fears and the concerns, but I urge all Jamaicans to embrace this as an opportunity for the transformation of our people from mere consumers of technology and consumers of information to now being people who can create knowledge and create technology; that’s the first step.
We still maintained the component of testing your knowledge; very important that we know that you understand what you read, and you can express it; the expression part is very important. Quite often you listen people speak and you have to be deciphering what was said. It is not a special gift to be able to communicate. Yes, there are some people who have that gift of oratory, but it is a learnt skill and we don’t emphasize that in our education system to properly connect your thought, to find the words that match the thought and then to express and the Primary Exit Profile has a component of that to help our students express themselves. It means of course that they will have to develop a certain comfort with the language, very important, and have a certain level of comprehension of the content that they will read.
I think generally that the PEP exam will create a new type of Jamaica, one that has a more curious mind, one that is looking more for solutions rather than being pedantic, one that is not afraid of technology but who believes in the process of investigation of discovery and applying existing knowledge to current problems to come with solutions. I think the transition from GSAT to PEP will be better for the country and for the generations to come so I want to use this platform to encourage Jamaica to embrace the new exam, not to fear it. It will be better for everyone. Again, let me congratulate the students. I know many of you would have gotten your school of choice, that means that you would have worked very hard and your parents are very relieved and we at OPM are doing our little part to ensure that you can continue with your education.
Ladies and gentlemen, I thank you.