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Is Ruel Reid a good fit as education minister?

Franklin
Johnston

Friday, August 18, 2017

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Senator Ruel Reid, minister of education, cannot be oblivious of the disservice he does to education. His action foments conflicts in this sensitive space and undermines cooperation in implementing education transformation. Honest dialogue is absent and via a cowardly “Friends of Ruel Reid” thinking people are maligned and slandered by faceless trolls. Are they ashamed of Ruel or of their own words?

Education is now a depressing topic burdened with politics. The finest discourse is on talk radio, but the education leader is absent — smug, self-referential, often adversarial. As of 2004, education has been on a timeline to which both the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) and People's National Party (PNP) are committed. So why this aggro?

We should be discussing school districts, creating 10 quality schools in each region, escalating music and physical education (to sync with our masses' preference for and dominance in sport, entertainment) — all to drive the curriculum, get boys engaged, and raise quality.

But education is now divisive, crassness grows, and no uplifting discourse commands the public space.

Communication is an issue. When Ronald Thwaites was minister he invited the Opposition to meet senior officers and told them to keep Member of Parliament Marissa Dalrymple-Philibert, the heir apparent, updated. Today, officers fear giving data may bring retribution. Also, his scorched-earth policy is not in sync with modern thinking, as health and education ministries usually hire the best, so political firing is unnecessary. Pearnell Charles' daughter, Dr Patrece Charles-Freeman, fresh from electoral defeat, was hired by Minister Thwaites to be CEO of the National Parenting Support Commission on merit. Ruel ejected a bright, eager permanent secretary; fired the young CEO of G C Foster, the one person in PE and sport with a PhD and good experience — watch the board. Many others were outplaced by politics so the JLP will pay for their hurt at the polls.

Then Ruel landed with an impractical agenda to end auxiliary fees — it bombed! His latest travesty is to label some top principals “corrupt” and “extortionate” with menaces; political cant, coarse, demeaning, unacceptable!

So, how did Ruel get to this place? A rural teacher elevated to principal of an iconic school with some reservation but he served under a titan of business with the scholarly side as his remit, but on his watch this went south. He privately supported the ministry's science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) project, but failed to defend Jamaica College (JC) having special maths and science node to his board. A principal counsels his board that STEM is the future so they study a proposal, not dismiss it out of hand. As leader of teaching and learning how many Rhodes scholars were ignited on his watch? Pilot training was fluff for a school that once gave us many science majors, and for years his charges were not in the Caribbean Examinations Council (Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate and Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Examinations) top 10. Educate Jamaica ranked his school 53 in 2013, 34 in 2014, and in 2015 and 2016 past 29. Might top 10 Immaculate, St Andrew High School for Girls rankle an underachieving principal of a name-brand school and, since no good deed goes unpunished, was the “corrupt” ministerial shout-out payback or a “look at me now” moment?

What of auxiliary fees? Ranting at top principals was nasty as Ruel might have started a conversation on “financing quality schools” with them. Things are tight, and elite schools are elite as subventions do not shackle a good principal's ambitions. Top principals are entrepreneurs and the best parents ambitious for kids and will give even when it hurts. Principal Ruel was enthusiastic about auxiliary fees; Minister Ruel is not. He once wrote: “Please remember that Government's funding is inadequate to provide all the services we offer at Jamaica College. We are asking you to do your part in making the following contributions by August 15, 2013. Auxiliary fees must now be paid with National Commercial Bank online banking…” The fee was $25,500. (JC pamphlet) Fees moved to $28,000 for academic year 2014/15; $31,000 in 2015/16; and for all this his school did not enter the top 10. But in 2017 Minister Ruel had a Damascus Road moment and $17,000 to $19,000 (sixth form) from Cabinet was proffered to deliver quality education. Did he know this before? And, if so, was he corrupt in “extorting” $31,000 from parents to total $50,000 ($19,000 plus $31,000) in 2015?

Andrew Holness now knows a minister plucked directly from school carries baggage, has scores to settle, and may damage education and his party. Ruel has no way back after abusing top principals whose shoes he could not fill. Until he learns how to treat people, Andrew should give him inanimate stuff like the information portfolio. He should also issue a public apology to the maligned principals and boards who serve schools selflessly for free.

But seriously, why does a minister discombobulate his portfolio and flay top-performing schools that make him look good? Would Karl Samuda diss heads of high-performing Grace or National Baking? Would Christopher Tufton pillory his best doctors, nurses? Or J C Hutchinson call his most productive farmers corrupt? Thankfully, Floyd Green seems temperate, carries no education baggage or grudges, and should know you don't diss performers, you reward them. We look forward to Prime Minister Andrew Holness's pre-midterm Cabinet reshuffle. Stay conscious!

Franklin Johnston, DPhil (Oxon), is a strategist and project manager. Send comments to the Observer or franklinjohnstontoo@gmail.com.

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