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Private schools in trouble

GSAT placement policy blamed for imminent closures

BY BALFORD HENRY Observer senior staff reporter balfordh@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, August 17, 2014    

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SOME private high schools will have to close next month as they are unable to stay open without the aid of government-financed Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT) placements, the head of the Jamaica Independent Schools Association (JISA) has said.

"Some of our schools will not be reopening in September," JISA President Pastor Wesley Boynes told the Jamaica Observer. He attributed this to the Government's decision not to award any more GSAT places to private/independent schools.

"Some of our schools had initiated developments and investments, based on arrangements for the intake of government students. So, the decision has obviously created crises in many instances," Pastor Boynes explained.

Boynes did not state how many of the private schools had indicated that they would close, however, he said: "Some of our members have made arrangements, reconfigured their operations and are moving in another direction. Some will collapse or are on their way to collapsing," he added.

In June, Education Minister Ronald Thwaites said that the Government had decided not to place any of the 39,438 students who sat the examination this year in private schools. He said that this would result in savings of $15 million, which would be used to improve the public education system. However, on a previous occasion, Thwaites had said that the move was triggered by the fact that the number of pupils sitting GSAT has been declining.

Last week, Pastor Boynes said that he believes that the move is of an economic and political nature, influenced by the pressures of the economic environment, the demands of the International Monetary Fund, as well as "the political issues which the honourable minister and his team are required to always take into consideration".

However, he insisted that, "at the end of the day this is education and I thought that a more strategic approach could have been engaged, instead of just calling the principals and making a dry announcement".

Boynes also expressed concern about how the private/independent high schools are seen by some people in the education sector; the failure of the Ministry of Education to be more accommodating to these schools; and how this latest decision to remove GSAT places from the schools has been handled.

"Currently, I think that the ministry's relationship with the private schools is a very loosely treated relationship. It is a work in progress and much more needs to be done," he said.

"I also think that the bigger picture is for the Government of Jamaica, led by the honourable prime minister, to consider the national vision, determine if the private educators can play a part in the realisation of this vision and, if so, then let's sit down; engage us in a serious and constructive manner, treat us as valuable partners in the process and let's move forward," he suggested.

He said that, for example, there is a very poorly staffed independent schools unit at the ministry, and private schools are generally treated like "distant second cousins". He also complained that the performance of private schools was ignored by Minister Thwaites in his 2014-2015 Sectoral Debate presentation.

"These situations indicate to you the nature of the cultural norms which we are dealing with, and it transmits the message that private schools are not taken seriously or are not considered in the strategic plans whenever the shakers and movers of the education system sit down to plan. I am very concerned about this," he said, while noting that most of the politicians that he knows, personally, on both sides of the political fence, send their children to private schools.

"So one has to wonder," Boynes said.

He pointed out that the official membership of JISA is approximately 220 private/independent schools, including most of the leading preparatory schools. However, he said that the association speaks on behalf of some 800 registered private educational institutions in Jamaica, "whether they are members or not".

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