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The urgency of getting the education debate on track

Claude Robinson

Sunday, June 16, 2013    

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As we are all so depressingly aware, key stakeholders in the education sector have failed to launch a serious debate on a raft of important policy measures outlined by Education Minister Ronald Thwaites to heal a system desperately in need of fixing.

Instances of miscommunication by the minster and unprofessional utterances from some in the leadership of the Jamaica Teachers' Association (JTA), most notably former presidents Paul Adams and Doran Dixon, do not need repeating.

Regrettably, most of that 'talking past each other' focused on teacher benefits and entitlements.

These are not unimportant; but the immediate stakeholders and the wider society need to understand and come to terms with the fundamental issues outlined by the minister in his presentation to Parliament, as well as the related ones in the economic programme agreed between the Government and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Briefly, the minister has put forward two basic propositions: First, educational outcomes at all levels are so bad that it cannot be business as usual; second, in the context of the country's financial predicament, some entitlements and privileges long enjoyed by teachers will have to be suspended or abandoned because keeping them could jeopardise the vital IMF agreement with the Portia Simpson Miller Administration.

Take secondary education as an illustration of systemic weaknesses. The good news is that this year about 90 per cent of all 13-18 year olds will find a place in a high school.

However, this improvement in quantity of enrolment is not matched by quality outcomes which Mr Thwaites described as "a disgrace to the 34 per cent of the education budget or approximately $26 billion spent on high schooling annually by the State".

As a percentage of the whole secondary cohort in 2012, those passing CSEC English were only 38 per cent and those passing Mathematics was only 20 per cent; approximately 50 per cent of the cohort, or 22,000 "leave with a certificate of attendance and a pretty picture in cap and gown. They are not certified for work. Most knock on the doors of HEART institutes where 75 per cent cannot be admitted because their literacy and numeracy do not reach the modest Grade 9 level".

Clearly this cannot be allowed to continue. The minister announced several initiatives to kickin when the new school year begins in September. The list includes assessing all incoming Grade 7 students"and where there are literacy and numeracy deficiencies, suspend other elements of the curriculum and bring them up to Education Grade 7 standard".

The expectation is that by 2016 all Grade 11 students should be able to sit the relevant end of high school examination "as a basis for earning a high school diploma" and "each student will be required to have acquired at least one marketable skill". That's a huge change from where we are now.

A good teacher in front of every student

Of course, good, motivated teachers are crucial to improving outcomes because overwhelming research evidence points to a good teacher in front of every student as the best predictor of a child's progress in education. At issue is the challenge of retaining and motivating good teachers in a context of economic stress.

Jamaica's Memorandum of Economic and Financial Policies agreed with the IMF outlines a raft of measures that the country has committed to undertake to ensure that "spending on education will also be made more efficient and effective".

It states, "There will be a balancing of student-teacher ratio within and between schools. This will be achieved through, among other things:

o Structured attrition, eg, a freeze on the hiring of new teachers in schools that are overstaffed, to allow the number of existing teachers to decline by attrition.

o Mandatory retirement at the normal retirement age (schools with teachers beyond retirement age will be notified to regularise by September 2013).

o Standardisation of the student/teacher ratios at the secondary level (to begin 2013).

o Establishing a clear accountability mechanism enabling the central government to set policies that grant schools more autonomy particularly with respect to greater flexibility in the deployment and redeployment of teachers.

o The process of voluntary reallocation of staff will continue over the medium term pending the enabling legislation for mandatory redeployment (enactment by FY 2015/16).

"Other measures include reforming the current study leave policies to take account of the new hiring policy; restructuring the current scholarship programmes into separate need-based and merit-based components (review and design of the scholarship mechanism in the 2013/14 academic year with full implementation in 2014); instituting greater cost recovery at the tertiary level, and improving the funding structure of the student loan scheme to facilitate increased access to tertiary level training."

Hence, the minister's announcement that a lot of study leave benefits will be "suspended"; that teachers who have reached retirement age will be retired this year; before they are replaced, efforts will be made to find under-deployed persons already in the service to fill their places.

"The projected savings from not replacing those who are to be retired is approximately $223 million over the next two years," according to the minister's estimate. The cost of study and vacation leave to the Government is $2.5 billion per annum. "This is now unaffordable."

There was a stark reminder last week from the outgoing IMF representative in Jamaica, Dr Gene Leon.

Addressing a Gleaner editors' forum, Leon, who demits office at the end of next month, pointed out that Jamaica is now faced with a 150 per cent debt-to-GDP ratio, as well as accumulated net indebtedness to other nations of about 125 per cent, or one and a quarter times what is produced annually.

According to him, this is compounded by 40 years of less than one per cent economic growth, caused by low productivity, lack of competitiveness, rising energy costs, and inhibiting bureaucracy.

"You are starting from that position... Your creditors and lenders of first resort are not comfortable in wanting to extend more financing to you," Leon reasoned. So, the Government cannot borrow its way out of the crisis.

Yet, once we get past the vulgar language and ugly suggestions in some of the comments of Messrs Adams and Dixon, it must be recognised that the JTA will aggressively seek to protect workplace benefits gained over the years. That's why I expect Mr Dixon to win the JTA presidency when the votes are polled next month. My guess is that the 24,000-strong membership may want a leader who can 'chuck badness' to the minister.

The truth, though, is that this is not a time to 'big up' whoever can get on bad. It is a time for sensible, decisive leadership demonstrating what the founding president of the PNP, Norman Manley, used to call "fixity of purpose". The purpose must be to fix an education system that is clearly broken.

All of us must encourage Mr Thwaites and the JTA leadership to cool the war of words and get back to the bargaining table. And they need to do so in time to start implementing change when the new school year starts. So much is at stake.

kcr@cwjamaica.com

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