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US$150 per year simply not enough to finance secondary education

Education Matters

With Dr Canute Thompson

Tuesday, August 29, 2017



I have a great deal of sympathy for politicians who operate under self-imposed and irrational policy choices that are designed to be in sync with political promises rather than the principles of progressive thinking. This problem has affected both political administrations in Jamaica. I recall the contortions into which former Minister of Health Fenton Ferguson would bend himself in order to defend the indefensible no-user-fee policy that was inherited from the Jamaica Labour Party Government of 2007 - 2011. It was clear that the practical Dr Ferguson did not believe the policy was working, or workable, but he had no choice but to carry it.

The same carrying of an impractical policy option has befallen Minister of Education Senator Ruel Reid. Much has been said about the actions and admonitions of then Principal Reid who, while at Jamaica College, extolled the virtues of parents paying their share of what was a relatively hefty auxiliary fee. Now he is in a different place and is taking a different stance on an issue about which he had a very strong alternative position. It must be very awkward for the honourable minister.

Candid review of policy needed

One takes note of the fact that the minister has apologised for referring to principals as corrupt and extortionate for having required parents to do what he, while at Jamaica College, had done. By issuing this apology the minister has done the right thing.

I have always maintained that in circumstances in which leaders make offensive, unhelpful, or untrue utterances which potentially or actually stand in the way of gaining co-operation, or which could undermine his or her leadership, the only sensible thing to do is apologise. Minister Reid has done the sensible thing.

But having done one important sensible thing, the minister needs to exercise the courage of examining whether the policy decision that is at issue should not itself be reviewed. When a policy is the subject of questions and concerns, the correct approach is not to ask implementers to blind themselves to the challenges and proceed full speed ahead. The correct approach is to undertake a no-holes-barred review of the policy.

I submit that it could be one of Minister Reid's signature accomplishments were he to undertake a review of this policy. Politicians often act based on advice, and Minister Reid has his team of both career civil servants advising him as well as political appointees. In my many conversations with non-political operatives across the spectrum of the Ministry of Education, Youth and Information, I have discovered that there is a deep desire for this policy to be reviewed. There should be no surprises there.

I do not know what research would have informed whatever advice the politically appointed folks in the ministry are giving the minister, but I know from other settings that some of his key advisors are not known for serious research, and so one has to wonder whether the minister may be in receipt of advice that is not informed by data and rigorous analysis.

Path to policy review

The School of Education at The University of the West Indies, Mona, offers a master of education degree in educational planning and policy. One of the core courses in this programme is 'Educational Policy in the Caribbean: Context, Process, and Politics'. When the Government announced this non-mandatory parental contribution policy in 2016 I asked students in this course to “get a copy of the policy”. They were all unsuccessful and it appeared as though no documented policy existed. What obtained was/is a policy enunciation awaiting a context and justification.

If no data-driven, analysis-rich, consultation-informed, comparatively-examined document that became the policy exists, then the ministry would have done itself and the country a disservice by foisting this policy on the system. The rule of thumb, in educational policymaking, at least, is that it must be informed by data that defines the scope of the problem that the policy is intended to solve. That data must be the subject of triangulated analysis and the focus of discussion with multiple stakeholders. If this process is followed, and the final policy position is congruent with the direction and strength of the data, as well as the recommendations of the majority of stakeholders, then the ministry is entitled to arrive at a wrong or right position in terms of the policy option taken. In those circumstances, neither the minister nor the ministry can be faulted.

If, therefore, the current non-mandatory parental contribution, policy were not subjected to this process of arriving at a position then it is my recommendation that the ministry embarks on this process now or ensures that it be guided by this process in the future.

Building on what we already know

Given what we already know, however, about the cost of secondary education we may not need further consultation to inform the amount schools should receive or be enabled to collect in order to carry out their operations.

We already know that the equivalent of roughly US$150 (about $19,000) that the Government provides, is not nearly enough to run a good school. While this $19,000 is a substantial increase over the previous $11,500, it is still woefully inadequate.

We already know, thanks to the work of Dr Peter-John Gordon of the Department of Economics at The UWI, that it costs about $65,000 per year per student to provide a proper secondary education. This figure, which Gordon assessed a few years ago, was confirmed by St Andrew High recently. Thus, taking those credible assessments into account we can say assuredly that after Government's subvention of $19,000 a school needs a further $46,000 per student, per year in order to provide a proper secondary education. I submit that the focus of future policy discussion in respect of the funding of secondary education should be on the best ways and means of raising this $46,000. It is inescapable that parents will have to be asked to make a mandatory (not a non-mandatory) contribution.

We also know that in other countries, some of which we like to mention as benchmarks, the expenditure per pupil, per year, at the secondary level is in the thousands. My good friend Christopher Burns called attention to some in his article on Sunday, August 27, 2017, highlighting Austria, which spends US$13,610 per secondary student per year; Luxembourg, which spends US$15,900; and Norway, US$14,000. The ever-referenced Finland spends US$9,800. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development average is US$9,280, more than 61 times the amount that Jamaica spends. (The average expenditure at the primary level is US$8,000.00.)

We should also remind ourselves of something else that we already know. We already know that a whopping 55 per cent of schools have been found by the National Education Inspectorate to be performing unsatisfactorily. This is frightening. We also know that among high schools the majority of underperformers are government schools. These schools happen to be those over which politicians wield significant influence in the appointment of board chairs and principals. Church-owned high schools typically outperform government-owned high schools.

Thus, while serious policy rethink must take place, there is plenty we already know that can be used to inform analysis of options and having decided on the kind of education system and outcomes we wish, to take the kind of sustained, participatory, actions that will get us there.

Dr Canute Thompson is head of the Caribbean Centre for Educational Planning, lecturer in the School of Education, and co-founder and chief consultant for the Caribbean Leadership Re-Imagination Initiative, at The University of the West Indies, Mona. He is also author of three books and several articles on leadership. Send comments to the Observer or canutethompson1@gmail.com.

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