Our priorities are all screwed up

Richard Blackford

Monday, April 24, 2017    

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The curtains came down recently on the Inter-secondary Schools’ Sports Association’s 107th Boys’ and Girls’ championships at the National Stadium in Kingston, Jamaica, with Calabar High School prevailing over arch-rivals Kingston College for a whisker-close, three-point win of the Mortimer Geddes Trophy. Edwin Allen High retained the girls’ title, leaving Hydel High and St Jago High to fight over the minor placings. My heartiest congratulations to the victors, especially to Calabar High School in securing their sixth-straight win and ownership of the bragging rights for yet another year.

With Champs now behind us, though, I believe that this is a good time to have a discussion that I feel that, given our nation’s limited resources, we must have at this time. According to reports, just about 3,100 athletes lined up for competition at this year’s renewal of the championships, where it is conservatively estimated that the top 10 male and female teams spent, collectively, more than $250 million in preparation for the games — or approximately $300,000 to prepare and deliver the average athlete.

By any assessment, this is a significant amount of money for schools and their sponsors to be spending on a single sporting activity, especially at a time when most of the island’s secondary schools continue to suffer from the continued crippling shortage of funds needed to deliver the core education needs of enrolled students.

It is important to note that of the 3,100 students that lined up for Champs, only about 15 per cent of that number (465) would have contributed any points to their respective schools, and in the final analysis only about 80 of those students will proceed to representing the island at the Carifta Games or other junior level competitions for the remainder of the year.

For most of the schools that have outlaid these huge expenditures only a handful will realise any of those rewards, while academically, with the exception of Kingston College (which ranks 20th among top academically performing schools), the remaining nine are struggling with their academic performances.

Using the published 2015 and 2016 high school academic performance rankings report I have listed the top five boys’ and girls’ schools Champs finishers alongside their academic rankings: See table.

According to the Ministry of Education’s statistics for secondary school students the median economic contribution of each enrolled student is $35,000 per year, or 12 per cent of the amount spent to prepare and outfit the average track and field athlete among the top 10 schools. It is useful to add that as I write this many of these same schools are frenziedly whipping up efforts to raise funds to send teams to participate in the Penn Relays at Franklin Field in Pennsylvania, USA. An estimated 450 athletes, and over 150 adults, will fork out (conservatively) more than US$1,500 each, or collectively another $115 million, to participate in the event. In pragmatic terms this additional expenditure is mostly for continued bragging rights and the securing of an overseas trip for participants, as the argument that the event provides opportunities for the kids to be seen by coaches is negated by the fact that Champs already attracts a burgeoning number of coaches and foreign scouts.

While the country enjoys a phenomenal reputation at global track and field, it certainly gives rise to the question of delivery or return on investment. Can we as a country continue to spend such huge volumes of money on a single sporting activity while the academic results of most of our secondary schools continue to deliver less than acceptable results?

The minimum expectation of our secondary schools is that its cohort of students being prepared for Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate examinations will successfully pass five or more subjects, including mathematics and English. It is unfortunate, but a fact of our secondary school experience, that of the top ten or so teams that compete at Champs, nine out of 10 of these athletically popular schools are failing upwards of a third of their students, despite their generous investments to produce a team for Champs.

The fact is that athletic participation is expensive, and it is quite likely that there is not a lot that can be done about the costs. Further, most of the affected schools will claim that these funds are provided by their respective alumni associations and not by the schools themselves. However, the records glaringly indicate that, academically, most of these schools are struggling and the remedy for treating this is…money.

Is there a chance that schools can get the same alumni associations to apply the same zest used to fund Champs to raising similar levels of funding to help to shift the academic trajectory of schools in Jamaica? Beyond that, will those alumni associations wake up to the realisation that, by their actions, the unintended consequence is the fuelling of a spirit of entitlement as they invest in maintaining a decadent component of Jamaican existence, as not enough of these youngsters will move on to become the much-heralded track and field success story that we think may happen. After all, only about a dozen such athletes are produced by the system each year.

Every year the secondary school system graduates approximately 18,000 to 20,000 teenagers. Of this lot, more than 60 per cent will not have met the basic five subjects graduating criterion because the institutions they attended could neither provide the tools nor provide the quality of teaching that would satisfy their examination needs. Yet we gleefully jump and cheer for some of these students at Champs without realising that even if they were lucky enough to attract an athletics scholarship, most would not survive in the offering institution, as the high school they attended could easily provide them with the necessary coaching and athletics gear but not that thing which they were enrolled in the institution for — an education.

In the circumstances, I have to liken Jamaicans to a woman in a community who is the mother of three children. She finds the price of a hairdo, new outfit and shoes to attend every community dance, and the following day she complains that she has no money to feed or to send her kids to school. Our priorities are all screwed up.

We all can change that by simply embracing the hard facts that, while we are liberal with our donations to fund our alma mater’s participation at Champs and other sporting activities, we could contribute much more to the country’s development, as well as that of our high schools, by investing much more in ensuring that academically none of our children are left behind. We must find and fill that balance, otherwise we are merely supporting a misplacement of priorities.

Richard Hugh Blackford is a self-taught artist, writer and social commentator. He shares his time between Coral Springs, Florida, and Kingston, Jamaica.

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