CORRUPTION involving some teachers of Jamaica's schools and certain interests connected to the book retail industry is on the move, a Jamaica Observer investigation has revealed.
With the 2014-15 school year set to start officially tomorrow, some parents will be forced to dig deeper into their pockets as they have been presented with elaborate booklists, on which some of the items are irrelevant, education sector officials have told the Sunday Observer.
The practice involves some teachers with direct contact to bookstores deliberately padding booklists so that the stores can make additional sales, and the teachers in return get a percentage of the proceeds.
The sad part is that some of the books that have been placed on the list are never used by students throughout the school year, those with knowledge of the activity have said.
While there has been no official probe launched to look at the practice in a microscopic manner, Ministry of Education officials are seemingly aware of it and are reviewing the options that are available, with a view to taking corrective action.
Minister of Education Ronald Thwaites revealed at an education and scholarship awards function recently put on by Member of Parliament for St Andrew West Rural, Paul Buchanan in Stony Hill, St Andrew that he had a sniff of what was happening, and decried the practice.
Thwaites, the man who has direct responsibility for guiding Jamaica's education policy, hit out against any possible corruption between education and business interests that he believes could contribute to undermining the learning of young ones.
Thwaites, who was delivering the main address, also called on parents to resist unnecessary spending on books, some of which he said were not needed.
“The book of the gospel says that people in authority – Scribes and Pharisees — must not place burdens upon the backs of people that they themselves are unwilling to bear.
“If the schools in West Rural St Andrew, principals and MP need to upgrade the school library so that you can have some of the reference books, let us do it that way, so that the children can go and read the extra book there, rather than having to spend the money and buy them and never use them,” he urged.
“The books that you must buy, go to the teacher and ask 'which one do I need first', because you can't read four books one time. You may be able to afford the book that you need first and then six weeks down the line you can get the second. We have to be reasonable with ourselves, and therefore we must not place burdens on people that they cannot bear. What is absolutely essential is that school must go on and people must attend school,” the articulate Rhodes Scholar told cheering parents and students.
The Sunday Observer was told by some parents that last year they were forced to spend what they considered “unnecessary money” on buying books that were never used by their children.
This led this newspaper to try to determine whether or not there was direct collusion between some teachers and bookstore personnel in a grand plan to force parents into buying books that their children would never use.
The Sunday Observer has even been given names of teachers who issued lengthy lists of book that were never used, but it was not immediately clear if those persons had any relationship with bookstore employees.
Another practice that the Sunday Observer heard about, was that of booksellers taking boxes of books to certain schools, offering discounts to teachers, who then sell them to the students.
“The whole thing is a racket,” one source close to the activity stated.
In a response yesterday, Thwaites told the Sunday Observer that there were instances of excesses that must be curbed and he felt that the ministry and teachers were at a stage whereby the necessary cuts can be made to reflect more realistic booklists for schools.
“There is evidence that many schools and teachers are doing their very best to adjust the requirements so that the school year can start on a good footing,” he said.
“We are encouraging the closest liaison between teachers and parents in terms of material for the children. The ministry and its regional offices stand ready to arbitrate any difficulty that may arise,” the education minister went on.
Thwaites emphasised that prioritising in the difficult economic times that Jamaica faces is a positive way of staying on the right track of educational development.
“We are labouring at the Ministry of Education because we have to find billions of dollars to help those students who come from the weakest element in the society and who are doing so well,” Thwaites said, while issuing a call for parents to go easy on material items which formed no basis of educational enhancement and advancement.
“People are in difficulty of meeting back-to-school expenses. I am saying to the teachers and the parents, don't worry about the bashment sneakers and the bling bag, that is not important. What is more important is the porridge and the little bread and tea that you give to the pickney to send to school.
“The cheez trix and the bag juice culture has to go because that cannot support brain development and learning. Plenty of our children — more than 30 per cent of our children go to school hungry every day. The hairstyle and the thing … that can't help you. I tell the girls in my constituency that I am not interested in what is on their heads, I am interested in what is in their heads.
“And so we have to ensure that we do the right things and have the right priority, and sending the pickney back to school with whatever you can manage is more important than the phone card, more important than the white rum and more important than the cigarette or the weed. This year, we in the Ministry of Education have said you do not have to buy six books and eight books in order to learn. The Government is spending $1 billion to ensure that every child in every grade will have a textbook by the time school starts. And yes, it is true that you will need a workbook in grades one and two and maybe another one in grade three and four, but that big money of $35,000 and $40,000 on booklist, do not buy it,” Thwaites said.
At the same time, he sought to clarify a statement that was carried by the Daily Gleaner, which quoted him as saying that children should take water to school, due to the ongoing drought, to flush toilets.
“The Gleaner want to run joke with me and say that I say pickney must carry water to flush toilet. Let me tell you what I said — although we have the commitment of the water commission to fill the tanks and help the schools with regular supplies of water, it is best if you put some clean drinking water and send it with the child to school, because then you are sure of what you are getting in drought times.
“And if you have a van or you carry them to school in a taxi or a car and it have a trunk and you can full up some bottles and drop it in a drum at school, and help the sanitary requirements of the school, of course you must do that. We have to help ourselves.
“I am asking us to be reasonable with each other as we enter the new school year,” said Thwaites, who will later today make a national broadcast on the state of readiness of the nation's education system, entering the new school year.