Steps in the right direction, Minister Williams
It is undeniable that Minister of Education and Youth Fayval Williams has one of the most challenging portfolio ministries to lead. Almost anything that goes wrong can be traced back to education; therefore, she and her ministry are often heavily scrutinised and criticised, even in cases that require personal responsibility.
Williams is definitely not among the most liked ministers, and the disdain towards her is amplified amid continuous teacher migration, teacher compensation chaos, inadequate resources in schools, and a high rate of underperformance from students, especially at the primary and secondary levels of the education system. In fact, several teachers consider her to be clueless about the ministry that she leads.
I recently thought about all the education ministers who have served us since 2002 and reflected on their impact on their assigned portfolios and the stakeholders that they served.
Many people thought that the current prime minister, Andrew Holness, would have been a great education minister, but his tenure was limited to one term as he had greater ambitions. And Ronald Thwaites will be remembered for the cloud of gloom he pronounced over the teaching profession.
When Ruel Reid was brought to the Cabinet in 2016, it was refreshing to have a figure who identified more intimately with the education system as he was the principal of Jamaica College at the time. However, his tenure was tainted by fraud allegations. Karl Samuda seems to have been a mere placeholder until Williams was appointed to the post.
My assessment of many of the issues plaguing the education sector is that they have been perennial, predating even Maxine Henry-Wilson’s tenure. The reality is simply more pronounced and Williams and the Government have a lot of catching up to do, especially with mounting calls in editorials for the education minister to open and lead public discussions on the Orlando Patterson taskforce report on education.
Newly appointed president of the ‘firebrand’ Jamaica Teachers’ Association (JTA) Leighton Johnson promised that during his tenure at the helm of the teachers’ union he would ensure that the JTA gives a fulsome assessment of the recommendations outlined in the taskforce report. After all, the teachers’ role is critical in the transformation of the education system.
On the matter of transformation, it was refreshing to hear the minister address the matter of grooming, highlighting that, as of this new school year, Rastafarian male students will no longer need to cover their hair. It is indeed a step in the right direction! Why did it take so long? As the minister said, “This is 2023; we really, really should not be doing that anymore. We need to respect other people’s religions.” Nonetheless, better late than never.
Importantly, the minister has called on teachers to review the draft Student Dress and Grooming Policy and provide feedback. This is an important step in the process as too often the ministry gives a directive to govern public schools, but many administrators and teachers do their own thing. Will this policy also be applicable to the teacher-training colleges? Many of these institutions have some archaic rules that they impose on adults which have no bearing on their personal or professional development.
Education is to liberate, not indoctrinate. It is like a religious institution forbidding students to take meat on dorm – but not everyone is vegetarian. Besides, some of these rules are not even salvific.
Another commendable thing the minister announced is improvements in the procurement procedures to get infrastructural projects and repairs done in a timely manner. Therefore, there won’t be a need to tender a project each time a needs arises because there will be a database of suppliers from which to draw.
Additionally, Minister Williams announced that more schools will be getting closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras. Some things may be tardy, but it is important to acknowledge the work that is being done.
Now it is time to address the anomalies in teacher compensation and see how best the country can retain some of the brightest teachers. The minister has announced that leave has been approved for 1,500 teachers. We are positive that many of them won’t be returning to the local classrooms. Perhaps we will see some of them in politics if given a chance, like Owen Speid.