50,000 empty spaces
BY INGRID BROWN Associate editor -- special assignment firstname.lastname@example.org
EDUCATION Minister Rev Ronald Thwaites says there are approximately 50,000 unoccupied spaces in the nation's primary and high schools, despite the yearly shortages at some institutions.
"If we aggregated all of our students at the primary and secondary level and add all of our school places, we have well over 50,000 empty spaces in our schools, but they are in the wrong places," Thwaites told the Jamaica Observer weekly Monday Exchange with reporters and editors at the newspaper's head offices in Kingston.
According to Thwaites, as populations and preferences shift, some 226 of the island's primary schools average fewer than 100 students. Additionally, the minister said there were 11 schools with more teachers than students.
"Some have closed themselves and some are just closing although closing schools is a very controversial thing because you don't want to (eliminate) that element in the community; you want to see if you can put an infant school there, some HEART training or adult education to keep it going," he stressed.
The minister said if these poorly populated schools were doing well it would be excusable, but they are not.
He cited the example of Robert Lightbourne High School in St Thomas, which, despite being built to accommodate 800 students, has fewer than half that number.
"They have [fewer] than 200 students and the teacher-student ratio is one teacher to eight students. But six miles down the road, at Seaforth High, they are running a triple-shift school," he said.
Meanwhile, as students get ready for the start of the new academic year in September, the education minister said there is a shortage of furniture for some schools, but that steps are being taken to address the problem in time for the beginning of school.
"We are short of furniture but we are putting out some orders this week and there is a lot of stock that people have been fabricating and have ready for us to buy," Thwaites said.
However, the minister said the plan is to ensure that every student has, as far as possible, a desk and a chair for the opening of the new school year.
He noted that going forward, the schools will have to take better care of the furniture.
"The pile of furniture you see behind most schools, we have to stop that," he said, explaining that a repair programme is in place to fix more than 10,000 units this summer.
"We have to get them to the technical schools or to the private fabricators and fix them and principals, teachers and boards have to be far more conscious of the value of school furnishing than we have been in the past," he said.
Outside of government having to find millions of dollars each year to source school furniture, Thwaites said they receive some assistance from Food for the Poor and a diaspora foundation in England.
"We are glad for everything we can get, but I am (somewhat ashamed) because I wish we could handle ourselves without having to go abroad to ask for charity from American churchgoers and English philanthropists," he said.
Meanwhile, Thwaites said some 30 schools are to be taken off the shift system this year. There are also plans to spread the extended day system to several schools across the island.
Another means of addressing the space issue has been the construction of additional classrooms at schools such as Balaclava, Titchfield, Edith Dalton James, Holy Trinity, Herbert Morrison Aabuthnott Gallimore, and Tacius Golding high schools.
And although Jamaica's Charter of Rights only provides for infant and primary school education, Thwaites said it is a big deal that 97 per cent of the cohort entering grade seven this year has a five-year place.