Damaging silence
Culture of secrecy preventing State from locating students not back in school

The culture of secrecy in the island is hampering the efforts of officials to locate absentee students who, based on complaints lodged to the education ministry, are illegally employed in the informal sector.

“Child labour is against the law; we got a couple of reports about that, and we did send persons out to do investigations, but as you know, you get there, of course you are not going to see anybody,” the Education Minister Fayval Williams, told the Jamaica Observer while providing an update on the Government’s ‘Yard to Yard: Find The Child’ initiative.

She said the habit of Jamaicans to turn a blind eye to impropriety has negatively impacted the success of the programme, which was launched last year to find more than 32,000 students who had been missing from the formal education system since March 2020 when the novel coronavirus pandemic hit and schools were closed to face-to-face instruction.

“We heard there were children working in the fishing villages and, of course, we got there, and nobody knew anything. We heard that children were working on the new road in St Thomas; we went there, and it was a similar thing, nobody knew anything,” Williams told the Observer.

She is urging Jamaicans to give credible information to the authorities, noting that the interest in finding the children went beyond applying penalties.

WILLIAMS... we can’t just not see anything or hear anything (Photo: Joseph Wellington)

“As Jamaicans, we must take responsibility, we can’t just not see anything or hear anything. Jamaicans have to understand the value of education and put out the effort, because when I walk around in my constituency, when I go into communities, the young people who are sitting there doing nothing are the young people who did not get any subjects in school,” the education minister noted.

A total $103 million was earmarked for the initiative with some 3,000 deans of disciplines, guidance counsellors and teachers, along with social and youth workers involved in the search. Those funds have, however, not been exhausted, Williams said, because of several factors. She said the Government had no intention of relenting in its efforts to locate the students or reallocating the unspent portion.

“We did find and encouraged many of our students to be back, but when we look at the attendance numbers it’s about where we were before the pandemic. But that’s still not good enough, because when you look at the attendance numbers on any given school day, pre-pandemic, we had a good 15 to 20 per cent of our students who were not in school. So we need to go beyond where we were pre-pandemic,” Williams said.

“We are looking at 15 to 20 per cent, and there are about 400,000 students, so you can see that’s a significant number. So, we want all our children to be in school. Our efforts slowed a bit because we went back in March, and then went right into exams, but trust me, as we roll into September we will be right back out there again,” she said.

“We want to find out the reasons why they are not engaged anymore. If they are working, we need to know. We would love to keep track of them, if their parents are having difficulties at home in terms of lunch money or bus fare. A lot of students, especially in the rural areas, have to travel long distances to school. That’s what we want to know so that we can help. So, we want to be more targeted in our intervention and collecting this data is going to help us,” Williams said.

In April this year Williams had reported to Parliament that, for the week of February 14, a total of 41,048 students remained unaccounted for; 25,521 for the week of February 21; 27,160 for the week of March 7; 29,479 for the week of March 14; 32,711 for the week of March 21; and 39,407 for the week of March 28-April 1.

BY ALICIA DUNKLEY-WILLIS Senior staff reporter dunkleywillisa@jamaicaobserver.com

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