BY LUKE DOUGLAS Career & Education senior reporter firstname.lastname@example.org
SEVERAL primary school principals and teachers have dismissed the Ministry of Education's accusation that some leading primary schools are charging as much as $8,000 for their children to be registered in those institutions.
The educators, represented by the primary schools committee of the Jamaica Teachers' Association (JTA), also deny that screening tests are administered to determine which children are enrolled in their institutions, insisting instead that children are registered as long as space allows.
Chairman of the committee Anne Geddes-Nelson told Career & Education she knew of no institution that charged $8,000 for registration. She acknowledged, however, that some schools do ask for contributions to cover a number of items that are not provided by the education ministry.
"On average, schools are asking for about $3,000. I don't know anything about $8,000," she said. "This money is for insurance premiums, PE (physical education) gears, medical forms, examination papers, school crests, ties and epaulettes. We know the children must be registered in school because it is free education. What we do charge for are the things they must have when entering school."
Last month the Ministry of Education sent a bulletin to regional directors, school board chairmen and principals of all educational institutions, which stated that some public schools at the primary level have been administering screening examinations to determine whether students can be admitted.
"It is reported that schools are charging as much as $8,000 for these screening examinations," the bulletin read.
The memo quoted the Education Act of 1980 which states: "No person who is eligible for admission as a student to a public educational institution shall be refused admission thereto, except on the ground that accommodation is not available in that institution".
It said the Grade One Individual Learning Profile is the only official instrument endorsed by the Ministry to assess students' readiness for primary school, and directed school administrators to "accept children on a first-come-first-served basis" according to their proximity to the school.
It also warned them "to immediately desist from this practice and cease from discriminating against any student, parent or family on financial, intellectual or social grounds".
Commenting on the reports, education minister Rev Ronald Thwaites said the practice creates discrimination in the education system.
"The ministry's policy is that children must be admitted to primary schools on the basis of proximity of dwelling and having completed the requisite pre-primary stage. Setting them an examination and excluding some of them is a junior GSAT (Grade Six Achievement Test) and further embeds the apartheid system in our educational order. We issued a clear statement and advised our education officers in the regions to look out for this. It is not to be done", he told Career & Education.
Thwaites warned administrators that children from families that cannot afford to send their children to school "must be accommodated without any reserve whatsoever". He however added that parents should try to contribute to their children's education and that "those who can pay, even slowly, even a little bit, must be encouraged" so to do.
Meanwhile, Geddes-Nelson, who is principal of St Faith's Primary in Glengoffe, St Catherine, explained that schools do not receive enough funds from the ministry to cover their costs.
"For example, the ministry gives the school one copy of the medical form, and if you have 90 or 100 children and every child must do a medical, how do you give each child a medical form and meet that bill when you get nothing from the ministry?" she asked rhetorically.
The principal said she asks for a contribution of $2,500 from the parents of the 22 grade one students at her school. She said many pay in small installments, and about 90 per cent are compliant.
Jasenta Jarrett-O'Connor, Principal of Independence City Primary, also in St Catherine said the Parent Teachers' Association decided some years ago to ask for a small contribution, which goes towards school development, one set of PE gears for the year and accidental health coverage.
"We encourage them to pay, but if they don't have the ability to pay we don't force them to," Jarrett-O'Connor stated.
On the matter of screening, she said her school carries out no such thing.
"We don't do screening tests at Independence City. We don't discriminate", she said.
For his part, principal of Four Paths Primary and Junior High in Clarendon Norman Allen said the parents' contribution goes towards activities such as Boys' Day, Girls' Day and Parents' Day. He said since registration of new students for September began last month, only 15 students out of a capacity of 60 have so far been registered.
"It is surprising for a school that has a literacy rate of over 80 per cent", Allen said, later appealing to parents in the area to get their children registered as soon as possible.
Over at St Jude's Primary in Kingston, the situation was different as registration was completed from May 11. A source at the school said it received about twice as many applications as available spaces at the school. She said there was no screening of students on the basis of ability or otherwise.
"The principal is trying not to take those from outside because we have more than enough children in the Waltham Park community. We don't take them on that basis (ability) because the slow ones need to learn too," the source said.
Meanwhile, president of the National Parent Teachers' Association of Jamaica Marcia McCausland-Wilson said she had heard that some primary schools were admitting students on the basis of ability and economic status, but said she had no proof of the practice.
"I hear that it is happening because parents tell me about it. You have one school that can hold 1,500 students and (there are) 4,000 children rushing that one school", McCausland-Wilson told Career & Education.
That practice, she said, perpetuates the charging of auxiliary fees.
"If parents keep doing that the school will be forced to come up with mechanisms to accept the children. I'm not bashing anybody because we all want our children to do well", she said.