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ASTEP foul up

McLean blames communication mix up after guidance counsellors axed from slow learners programme

BY LUKE DOUGLAS Observer senior reporter douglasl@jamaicaobserver.com

Wednesday, October 10, 2012    

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THE contracts of 32 guidance counsellors employed under the Alternative Secondary Transitional Education Programme (ASTEP) were not renewed at the end of last month. However, they are being reinstated in their jobs after what the Ministry of Education says was a communication mix up.

ASTEP was established in September last year to assist more than 5,000 students who had completed their years at the primary school level but who had not mastered the Grade Four Literacy Test.

The programme, conceptualised under the previous administration, involves the establishment of scores of ASTEP centres in schools islandwide in which students would be given the necessary resources to improve their literacy and numeracy skills in order for them to transition to high school.

However, with the programme now in its second year, questions are being raised as to whether it is being given the resources initially promised to make it a success.

Principals of schools with ASTEP centres say there were not enough literacy and numeracy specialist teachers working in the programme, even before the guidance counsellors were removed.

President of the Jamaica Association of Guidance Counsellors in Education (JAGCE) Kayson Jones confirmed yesterday that the contracts of the guidance counsellors were not renewed and that no reason was given for their removal.

"The ASTEP counsellors were issued a one-month contract in September 2012 and the contract was not renewed for October. We haven't had any documentation from the Ministry (of Education) as it relates to the discontinuation of the services provided by such critical practitioners, especially in the context in which they served," Jones told the Jamaica Observer yesterday.

The JAGCE head said the removal of the guidance counsellors from ASTEP had placed added pressure on the ASTEP co-ordinators.

"The ASTEP co-ordinators have been facing severe challenges helping the students re-adjust because many of these students would have built a rapport with the ASTEP counsellors and they think that they have been abandoned by people with whom they had built a level of trust," Jones said.

He said the ASTEP co-ordinators are now being forced to deal with the social and psychological issues which the guidance counsellors were hired to address, while still co-ordinating the literacy and numeracy programmes under ASTEP.

"When they see students acting up and displaying certain behaviours they would refer these issues to the guidance counsellor, but the counsellor is no longer there," Jones said.

However, when the acting permanent secretary in the Ministry of Education Grace McLean, was contacted for comment, she said the guidance counsellors should not have been removed from the programme, and that they were being reinstated.

"I have instructed the (ASTEP) co-ordinator to reinstate the counsellors immediately," she stated.

McLean attributed the non-renewal of the guidance counsellors' contracts to a lack of communication. She said a number of cost-saving measures were being discussed and the ministry was trying to ensure the most efficient measures were used.

Yesterday, one principal at a St Andrew school, who asked not to be named, expressed disappointment in how the ASTEP is being implemented at that school.

"It's just a grand waste of time. It looks good on paper but what happens out in the schools is far removed from what the ministry is saying," the principal said.

The principal said 25 students were sent to the ASTEP centre, but no computers, special materials or furniture were provided — only some textbooks and a course outline.

The ASTEP co-ordinator is a newly trained primary school teacher, employed under the Jamaica Emergency Employment Programme (JEEP), the principal revealed.

"We were told we would have our own computers, but nothing of the sort," said the principal.

However, principal of Four Paths Primary Junior High in Clarendon, Norman Allen, said the ASTEP centre at his school is coping without the ASTEP counsellor by utilising the guidance counsellor at his school.

"The absence of the ASTEP guidance counsellor will not affect Four Paths and I go as far to say it would not impact any of the junior high schools because they already have guidance counsellors," Allen said.

He admitted that the school did not receive any computers for its ASTEP centre, but allows all the facilities of the school to be used by the ASTEP students.

"The ministry provided a printer and an interactive whiteboard and we are setting it up in a room so that it can be fully utilised," Allen said.

In March 2011, the Observer reported former permanent secretary in the Ministry of Education Audrey Sewell as saying the affected children would received special attention under ASTEP.

"We intend to have dedicated reading specialists, literacy specialists, numeracy specialists and psychologists", she said then.

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