News

Six sent home

BY ERICA VIRTUE Observer Writer virtuee@jamaicaobserver.com

Monday, November 16, 2009    

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The Ministry of Education has interdicted six senior public servants, and launched a major investigation into the disappearance of 80 scripts with the results of fourth-graders from Pembroke Hall Primary School, who sat the grade four literacy test in June.

The results which should have been handed to the school for the start of the 2009/2010 academic year in September, would determine the literacy levels of the students. Results showed mastery, near mastery or non-mastery of reading readiness skills at the grade level.

Permanent secretary Audrey Sewell on Friday said the ministry had sent the officials home on half-pay, pending the outcome of an investigation, which is being conducted by a retired assistant commissioner of police with detective training.

He has one month to produce his report. "We acted quickly to deal with the issue when it came to our attention. It has caused a major embarrassment for the ministry, but it's the effect that it has had on the children. They are the ones who are left holding the empty bag and they have done what they should," she told the Observer.

Those sent home are Sharon Neil, former head of the student assessment unit; Charlotte Lewis, senior education officer; Elaine Raulston, director, region 1; Nioka Small, education officer with responsibility for the school; Paul Cooke, information technology officer in the student's assessment unit; and Erica Shand-Palmer, examination manager at the student assessment unit.

The investigation will determine what permanent actions will be taken.

"I owe it to the people of Jamaica. It is my job to see that the ministry work is done. I am the accountable officer for the ministry and the minister will call for my head. But I will await the outcome of the investigation to determine the next course of action, and that amongst other factors will see the chips falling where they may," she said.

The disturbing story started unravelling a day before the June examinations, when ministry officials delivered only 104 of the 204 required scripts. However, only 124 children sat the examinations, but results have been provided for 44 students. The results for the remaining 80 children have apparently disappeared without a trace, which has forced the probe.

Sewell said that when the ministry first became aware of the problem, its communication office was told by some of the interdicted officials that the school's principal was at fault. She was accused of not registering the children, but the story changed to say that the registration had been found in the database.

However, it has emerged that ministry officials did not provide the correct information to the ministry, and that has now caused frosty relations between the school community and the ministry.

"The school community, including the parents, is extremely upset with us, demanding apologies. We responded because of the information that was communicated to us, and what has now emerged is that several different stories have been told, while some stories have been recanted. We had no choice but to take the action we did, and we leave the rest to the outcome of the investigation." Sewell advised.

She said the principal provided information at a meeting called by the ministry, which suggested that "she was in fact wronged by the information that was given to us".

The Observer understands that at least one of the six officials admitted receiving the scripts, which is the first part of the chain of custody following the end of the examination. The papers are taken to the regional office, which holds them before delivery to the marking centre.

"We have a huge issue of confidence, and we can't operate like that," she stated.

She said the principal was of the view that the matter was being investigated, as she had been in dialogue with the officials from the student assessment unit, who assured her that everything was okay.

However she was being portrayed to the ministry as the villain, but Sewell said the principal provided sufficient documentation to the ministry to suggest that she had done her part, and kept records.

But the investigation has taken a new turn.

Reports have reached the Observer that some individuals are now refusing to co-operate with the investigator saying they did not want anyone to lose their jobs. Sewell confirmed that the ministry was aware of the reports, but said the parents and children deserved better, and the guilty individuals must pay for incompetence.

Reports have also reached the Observer that at least one connected party has suggested that the ministry leave the matter alone, as it happened all the time and will work itself out.

When it was put to the permanent secretary, she said it was "a very scary thought, because it means that worse has happened, and we have been kept in the dark".

Meanwhile, newly appointed chief education officer Grace McLean stressed the need for accountability in the sector.

She said it was almost a free-for-ll in the sector and some education officers did little more than sign the schools; log book to indicate that they had visited.

"If ever this was a case for accountability and responsibility, this is it. People must do the jobs they are paid to do, and if you can't do it, then somebody else will do it." she stated.

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