Time for geographical zoning of schools

Monday, January 21, 2013

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THE latest major accident involving a vehicle transporting school children underlines the need to have children attend schools closest to them.

The police say 18 students of Holmwood Technical High School in Christiana, North East Manchester, were hospitalised, some with broken bones, when the bus in which they were passengers overturned on Friday.

Yet again there are calls for a dedicated school bus system to protect children from reckless taxi and minibus drivers whose priority is to make a fast buck. In the latest case, police are alleging that the driver, who operated the Mandeville to Christiana route, was ticketed for careless driving just five minutes before the accident.

Obviously, a dedicated school bus system in rural Jamaica is desirable. But we must also recognise that it is not going to happen any time soon because of the harsh economic circumstances.

Even a phased buildout, as has been suggested by various rural MPs including Messrs Mike Henry and Audley Shaw, would mean a huge spend at a time when the Government must cut expenditure to meet the demands of the IMF and to gradually bring stability to the crisis-plagued economy.

And we would only be kidding ourselves were we to believe that a widescale, State-run rural school bus system could be run at a profit at this time.

We need to urgently take on board the reality often repeated by South Manchester MP Mr Michael Peart that many children — especially in the rural areas — are being asked to travel too far to school.

It's not by accident that Holmwood Technical has had to grieve more than most, as a result of road accidents down the years. Children from as far away as the deep south of Manchester, from Clarendon, St Elizabeth, St Ann, and Trelawny, attend Holmwood, travelling by taxi and minibus on steep, torturously winding roads.

Holmwood is not alone. Across Jamaica, children suffer similarly.

In 2009, Mr R 'Danny' Williams, chairman of the school board at Jamaica College, put the case sharply.

"When you have 50 per cent of your children coming from outside Kingston and St Andrew, as we do here at Jamaica College, most of the times you can't get the parents to attend PTA meetings. Youngsters very often have to leave school early because they have to catch this or that bus, because they are going to St Mary or Morant Bay. This has to be stopped," he said back then.

For city-based people who struggle to understand, we are talking about some children in rural Jamaica travelling 60, 70, 80 miles daily, to and from school. Study and homework time get shaved down to very little for weary minds and bodies. Why then should we be surprised at poor exam results?

The two-shift system means that some children as young as 12 and 13 years old get home long after dark because of distance and vagaries of public transportation.

Surely this is child abuse.

Then there is cost. A child switching vehicles, twice, thrice, if not more, morning and evening, could end up paying close to $2,000 per week in travel fares alone.

No wonder then, as Mr Peart phrased it two years ago, school attendance was falling like a "lead sinker".

The old 'school tie' inclinations and the belief in 'big school' have, in the past, neutered thoughts of geographical zoning.

But, we believe that in the rural areas at least, it should now be treated as an imperative.

Let those who insist on sending their children to chosen schools, far away, make the necessary boarding arrangements, etc. But at bottom line, it seems to us, the State needs to put children first.




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