Equality in Education? A Study of Jamaican Schools under Michael Manley, 1972-80

Article excerpt


THE MICHAEL MANLEY GOVERNMENT of 19705 Jamaica has always won plaudits for its achievements in education, even from its most trenchant critics. The regime's education policies, most notably the 'free education' scheme, are often cited as proof of goodwill in Manley's party, the People's National Party (PNP). The literature on the era's politics has emphasised that however moderate and multi-class his ideas, Manley advanced the cause of equality in education in a divided society.2 However, studies of Caribbean education3 have shown that while schools have served as agencies for upward mobility, the system in Jamaica, as in other developing countries,4 has failed to meet the needs of the majority. Therefore, it is surprising that hardly any works have explored in depth the approach of Manley's education programme towards the poor, in terms of equality.

This article looks at education policies which were pursued by Michael Manley in Jamaica from 1972 to 1980, when his PNP government was elected to power on its promises of equality. The paper examines the extent to which philosophies of equality informed education reforms, and investigates how these manifested themselves On the ground'. This work highlights the case of black Jamaicans, a disproportionately poor group whose status and image were stained by slavery and colonialism, and asks the extent to which education countered this condition, enabling them to be seen as 'equal'. The paper deals with the themes of expansion, accessibility and curriculum/culture, and submits them not to gender analysis, which deserves a full-length study in itself, but to racial and class analysis. The research centres on Manley's policies towards school-aged youth: during the 19705, there was a massive population explosion in Jamaica, especially in the 5-19 age band,5 "the result of high fertility periods of the past decades".6

The article argues that Manley genuinely sought to alter the racial and social profile of the island's schools, and to cultivate a 'cultured and sophisticated' image of blacks through education. However, it also shows that the development of such policies was inhibited both by logistical challenges, made worse by economic7 and political crises,8 and by Manley's reluctance to follow through with them at the expense of educational quality and standard. Manley's goal was not to perfunctorily 'blacken' the elite models: in his cost-benefit analysis, a newly branded elite system, but with the educational standards of old, was important for Jamaica's national and international ambitions. In other words, Manley's egalitarian education ideal was not a myth, but was less true in practice than it was in theory.

Education in Jamaica before Manley

The foundation of the island's government- aided education, which can be traced to 1866, was linked to the hopes of a minority group for a majority: the elementary/primary school system, which focused on teaching religion and the 'jRs', emerged from popular education pioneered by Christian churches and missionaries for ex-slaves.9 Though basic literacy skills were promoted, these schools, and their 'all-age' extensions (which went up until grade 9), were part and parcel of the British/European mission to 'civilise' and 'Christianise' black people. In the words of one source, "The Primary Schools [of Jamaica] are perhaps the most class exclusive schools outside the top English public schools in the whole of the English-speaking world."10 Vocational and technical schools evolved from this system. On the other hand, the island's grammar/high schools, which evolved from various plantation owners' bequests for the education of Jamaican poor whites and 'coloureds',11 was to groom the heirs apparent to colonial leadership. Based on the ethos of British 'public schools', such as Eton and Harrow, Jamaican grammar schools, like their counterparts across other areas of Empire,12 centred on a literary curriculum. …