Ronald Thwaites | Incomplete transformation
These thoughts are excerpts of the contribution to the ongoing Sectoral Debate in the House of Representatives by Ronald Thwaites, member of parliament and opposition spokesman on education.
Long ago, the political leaders of this country committed to lift education beyond partisan sparring. The People's National Party stands by this principle and is devoted to participating in the radical transformation of the enterprise. The children of Jamaica and the national cause cannot wait on changes of political administration to experience improvements in education and training.
I wish to express respect for what the present administration is trying to achieve in this vital arena of development. For should we fail, it would be everybody's peril: it would scuttle all hopes for growth and happiness.
With a commitment to constructive criticism and because tribalism in education is a boomerang, the following proposals and comments are offered.
Jamaica needs a clear vision of those educational outcomes we buy into for all our people. Preferably in five but no more than seven years from now, all adults without challenges must be assessed as able to read, write and speak Standard Jamaican English; have attained a grade 11 competency in practical mathematics and information technology; at least a Level 2 certification in an occupational area, and a measurably satisfactory suite of social skills, civic awareness and a sense of personal responsibility.
These standards are the minimum to ground 21st-century competitiveness. This achievement is the only antidote to the diarrhea of the $20 billion or more that we double spend on remedial education every year - not to mention the decline of social capital and the chronic loss of productivity.
The certification of early childhood institutions, though helpful, is insufficient to bring about the revolution of care and healthy socialisation required for babies and young children. The deficiencies of family and community structure require a complete reorientation of approach. The acquisition of basic social skills and the embedding of appropriate behaviour traits must now become as high a priority as the development of language and measurement competences.
Honesty, respect for life and law; discipline, commitment to productive work, loyalty to nation and family, faithfulness and compassion in personal relationships have to be intentionally modeled and taught. Improve family life and we will improve educational outcomes.
This is not happening yet and cannot happen when three-quarters of early childhood teachers are not trained or paid commensurate to their responsibility. Reassigning surplus teachers does not work well. If we are really going to do it right the first time, the little ones require the best teachers the nation has to offer.
That is why we commit to support funding for a three-year programme, starting now, to train and deploy 5000 specially selected teachers for service in the some 3000 basic and infant schools.
And please, reverse the very wrong directive to the CHASE Fund to restrict their assistance to the 12 per cent of ECIs that are infant schools. What will happen to the remaining 88 per cent? This magnifies rather than solves a problem.
Given rising prices, an estimated 40 per cent of children come to school hungry and require both breakfast and lunch. The commendable increases in PATH and subventions for school feeding have been overcome by added need.
We must commit to providing whatever nutrition each student needs and which his/her family cannot afford. Schools, not some remote PATH officer, must be placed in a position to assess and respond to need.
A renewed and persistent effort must be made to move away from the 90-plus per cent of foreign food offered in schools. The agricultural and agro-processing sectors surely can be stimulated to take advantage of this annual $6billion-8 billion market.
We propose the nation move away from the system of promotion by age rather than by performance. Perhaps 20 per cent of our children fall somewhere on the scale of exceptionalities. Many need a year longer to grasp primary skills. Nothing can be more futile than advancing students to higher grades before they have mastered foundational academic and social learning.
If we get the primary experience right, the knowledge and deportment of young people entering high school will considerably improve. The differences between traditional and non-traditional schools will contract over time.
Meanwhile, schools can cluster on the basis of proximity, religious affiliation or other social similarity so as to share resources, best practices and improve image. Church- and trust-sponsored schools that do relatively well should be incentivised to extend their brands to other schools for the common good.
The shift system in all schools was slated to be abolished by this year. Why has it been delayed? Adjusting priorities in education and training ought to be undertaken after consensus, not ministerial fiat.
And please, it is simply not fair to offer all schools the same level of money for student support. Those in greater need must be more amply enabled.
Absentees and Dropouts
One in every five students is absent each day. In some areas, three per cent of the boys and some girls drop out before finishing grade 11. There is no effective means of tracking them and many end up in criminal situations or become victims of human trafficking. The Ministry of Education must at once declare the whole island a truancy zone, improve public information as to the necessity for regular presence, and assign social workers with resources to trace absentees with a target to improve attendance to above 90 per cent by the end of the 2019 school year.
Order in Schools
Up to 40 per cent of already-too scarce teaching and learning time is wasted on administrative and disciplinary issues. There exists a minority of disruptive students who will defeat any classroom endeavour. The present
code does not match the dysfunction of such students. Detentions are a joke, suspension an unearned vacation, and expulsion a last resort with negative consequences. The National College of Educational Leadership and the universities can comprise the Institute of Excellence about which Dr Peter Phillips spoke and be tasked to develop a modern disciplinary code for Jamaican schools by next year this time.
To ensure the best teachers, we will have to screen those who wish to enter the profession ever more carefully for suitable character traits. Current salary scales are blunt and inadequate. Incentives are required to attract and retain good male teachers, mathematics and science teachers and other scarce personnel.
The tenuring of teachers to specific institutions robs the nimbleness of our system to respond to demographic changes and the imperative of high-quality differentiated learning opportunities.
The nation's leaders must join in a sensitive but unpostponable negotiation to review all the terms of employment of school personnel with the intent of offering greater reward, more accountability and to best align human resources to the goals of equitable and quality education for all.
The reality is that most of our children are strangers to Standard Jamaican English when they come to school. Contrary to historic assumptions, English is not spoken or read to them at home, nor do they hear it on the streets or on social media. Jamaican
Creole is the language they know.
How can children learn well when they likely do not understand what teacher is saying or what is in the book? Just as social deficiencies constitute the greatest cramp to school productivity, so the language barrier is a huge impediment to learning. Competence in Standard Jamaican English is non-negotiable but I am now convinced, as I was not before, that it has to be taught as a second language.
Tertiary Opportunities and Funding
Post-secondary training offers the biggest capital gain that any person can add to their life and to the nation's well-being. Savings used for this purpose yield life-long dividends. Yet of the $800-plus billion of people's money entrusted to the financial sector, only a small fraction is available to finance post-secondary education. This makes no sense.
An insistent endeavour must be led by us, the political directorate, to negotiate long-term, low-interest, minimal- or no-collateral products with banks and pension funds so that by 2028 the latest, 70 per cent of those leaving high school can be aided towards higher qualifications and at least 50 per cent of the workforce can be certified and upwardly mobile in some useful pursuit.
I would like to end on the same note I began. The task of a responsible Opposition in the arena of education and training is not to beat down the sincere efforts of an administration but to offer collaboration and constructive criticism.
The children of Jamaica, brimming with ambition and capacity, don't really check for which party is in power. The national cause needs greater equity and quality now.
Some of the old moulds in education have to be broken and it is hard to do that while keeping the system going. In short, a Ministry of Education needs help, especially if it thinks it has all the answers.
Education, after all, is everybody's business. Success requires an intense and respectful cooperation between political forces, state agencies, parents, teachers, alumni, Church and private sector. Each has an indispensable role to play in crafting a community of care around each student and school.
And in this sacred cause, each of us, particularly those in high office, is called to show the strong compassion of Jesus, not the arrogance and self-absorption of Caesar.
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