We need a Ministry of Schools

Franklin
Johnston

Friday, January 11, 2019

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Seventy years ago we had self-government, a department of education, schools did well, and hope was born. Independence came and the conflict of education vs bread was finally won, so schools grew and hope grew.

Over time the Cabinet portfolio evolved, but is now hampered by tasks not related to teaching and learning. So the core business is compromised; kids short-changed; parents, teachers vilified; business is taxed twice (second time via their foundations) to pay for schools which do not deliver. In 2016 Cabinet knew 70 per cent of students were failing, yet it added the information portfolio to the ministry — what? Why give an ailing ministry of such priority new baggage? Friends, we must strip away this excrescence, all outside commitments and free education to meet targets and educate our kids.

But Cabinets underdevelop schools in other ways. When Andrew Holness was minister of education he chose the principal of an iconic school as advisor. The school had underperformed in exams on his watch, so his exit brought relief to them, but was he sanctioned? No, he was promoted! As prime minister he made this failed principal minister and a pall came over schools. Then, to top it all, said minister chose a failed principal dismissed for cause under the Education Act as his advisor. You could not make this up!

School is for scholarship, so in the past high-performing principals, as Edwin Allen, Edith Dalton James, were elevated to the ministry; just as Ronald Thwaites chose Radley Reid of top-notch Campion College as advisor and burnished the ministry's image.

We are into a multi-decadal Inter-American Development Bank-funded education transformation project and we must return schools to their core business for it to succeed. Transforming education started under Thwaites and is crucial to excising dated practices. By the Education Act school is kept 190 days, five hours per day, and trust me, kids need every minute; so we must strip away all superfluity to maximise teaching time.

The private sector is major funder and beneficiary of education, but they cannot bitch about illiterate workers then pilfer the best teachers. Teachers do good civic work, but data suggests student's results suffer by these outside tasks. What ministry protocol is there to stop principals, teachers of failing schools from being executives of farming, culture bodies, and rob kids of classroom time? Business, civil society must ensure teachers and principals involved are from high-performing schools or they are part of the problem.

Check this: School is 190 days of five hours for 11 years up to Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) exams and every day counts. Yet a teacher may be sick 10 days; have 12 days for personal stuff; attends union, parenting, child welfare, festival, community workshops, functions and meetings. Add public holidays, ministry training, school sports, weather, days for Champs; so 20 per cent plus school days may be lost and Friday afternoon is downtime. Is this why the extra lesson industry booms and costs parents millions?

Mr Private Sector President, can your factory, business process outsourcing centre, or business lose one day a week and survive? Thwaites started a study on teaching time lost to guide policy, so Ruel Reid, how does this contribute to the 70 per cent failure rate? Do the math! Are our kids dumb or are they just underserved?

So, how do we return the ministry to its core business of scholarship and great schools? Prime Minister Holness is passionate about education. Finance Minister Nigel Clarke knows educated citizens produce, earn, and pay taxes. Security Minister Horace Change knows they commit less violent crime. And, Health Minister Christopher Tufton knows they manage their health, so step up!

Consider this: First, we need a ministry of schools — early childhood, primary, secondary only — no youth, information or empire building to distract; set the foundation. It must deliver 80 per cent of cohort with five CSEC passes; remediate 15 per cent (global norm), and emancipate the gifted five per cent.

Next, increase teaching time by, say, 20 per cent using mass media or new media and give teachers performance pay. Kids may lapse by a grade level over holidays, so stanch this now!

Third, form a ministry for tertiary, higher education and training to be closer to the labour market — jobs, careers, professions and research.

Next, Jamaica is now in the Programme for International Student Assessment — the international student rating system — so schools as Immaculate High must be given funds they would have got from parents but for Reid's wrong-headed notions, or we will be world-class disgraced when results are published. Other schools must also get funding — no discrimination!

Finally, Mr Prime Minister, don't promote failed principals to political office in education as they may carry grudges and all hell breaks loose!

Prime Minister, education is the key to escaping poverty and achieving the prosperity agenda. School them well and kids will be able to take a job or make a job for themselves. Productivity will soar and we will have good policing. Sir, appoint a talented schools minister, allow a year for proof of concept, and before you exit the office we may have 80 per cent with good CSEC passes and values. Stay conscious!

Franklin Johnston, D Phil (Oxon), is a strategist and project manager; Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport (UK); and lectures in logistics and supply chain management at Mona School of Business and Management, The University of the West Indies. Send comments to the Observer or franklinjohnstontoo@gmail.com.

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