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Thwaites laments troublesome teacher tenure system

BY INGRID BROWN Associate editor - special assignment browni@jamaicaobserver.com

Monday, August 18, 2014    

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Many of the nation's schools continue to have surplus teachers while others are struggling to meet the demand because of the tenure system which makes it impossible for the education ministry to relocate teachers to institutions where their skills are most needed.

Education Minister Ronald Thwaites said although Jamaica has one of the best teacher-student ratios in the Caribbean, the problem is that teachers are not always placed where they are most useful.

"They cannot be moved, so you find a problem where you have one teacher to 45 students in some schools and a few miles up the road you have one teacher to 10 students," Thwaites said.

The minister, who was addressing the Jamaica Observer Monday Exchange last week, said this will have to be changed with legislation.

"In the reform of legislation, which we haven't done for a while, we have to change these things; not to take away anybody's rights, but to better use that which we have," Thwaites said.

He cited the example of a high school in Portland where there are approximately 1,200 students to seven math teachers. Additionally, there was only one home economics teacher supervising 45 students for the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate exams. But even as the school sought assistance in getting another home economics teacher and a few more math teachers, Thwaites said there were 17 underutilised teachers at the school.

"The school has all of 17 under-deployed teachers but none of them can teach math or home economics, but I can't move any of them to places where we really need them in early childhood, special education, math or technical studies because they are tenured where they are, and unless they misbehave egregiously that is it," he said.

The education minister said this untenable situation is not unique to that school.

"Tell me what to do with one particular teacher who is at the top of her pay scale with a master's degree in home economics and she is tenured in a primary school, teaching literacy to grades one and two and the students are all failing because she can't teach literacy?"Thwaites asked.

"Her principal finds a post at a high school 10 miles up the road where she has to pass every day to get to her primary school, where she would be teaching home economics to grades 10 and 11 and she won't go," a despondent Thwaites added.

Although reforming the legislation will help in giving the ministry power to relocate teachers as needs be, Thwaites said the preference is to get it done by consensus and have a system of voluntary relocation where a teacher can move to another school without loss of any status.

"A part of the problem with that teacher (who refuses to move) is that she might be afraid that she might stop being a senior teacher and might lose something in the move," said Thwaites, who was adamant that the plan is not to cause teachers to lose out on any of their benefits.

"We don't want to take away anything from anybody, but we want to professionalise teaching in a way that gets the most out of the talents and the skills because the ultimate objective is not to satisfy the individual, the minister, the commissioner, the teacher; it is all about student achievement," Thwaites said.

Meanwhile, the minister said more than $60 billion of the $80-billion or so that Government allocates is spent on remuneration. He noted that it is costing taxpayers $2.5 billion this year to pay teachers for their leave.

Thwaites explained that this situation exists because teachers are allowed to accumulate their leave.

The code of regulations, he said, provides that there should be 190 instructional days every year, and this should not include days like Jeans Day, Sports Day, Teachers' Day, etc.

"But we have got in the habit of treating these days as instructional days and the children get less. But beyond that, 95 per cent of teachers' leave is applied for during those 190 days, although the code says that normally a teacher shall not be granted vacation leave during instructional days," Thwaites explained.

He noted that while the plan is not to deprive anyone of their vacation leave, it is important that teachers utilise this benefit outside of the teaching days.

"We are not going to be able to continue this; we have to rationalise," Thwaites said.

Pointing out that all change involves resistance, Thwaites referenced paragraph 27 of the International Monetary Fund letter of intent which speaks to the reform that must take place in Jamaica.

"We must do this as far as possible, consensually; if not, we are going to be required to do it, so don't let us get to that point," the minister said, adding that there was need to "build public opinion to the notion that we are not trying to take away anything from anybody but that we are trying to organise that which you are entitled to in ways that inure to the benefit of the children and ultimately to your benefit".

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