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Teacher debate: Enlightened self-interest or selfishness?

Published:Friday | August 29, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Aubyn Hill, Financial Gleaner Columnist
Minister of Education Ronald Thwaites ... his timing may have been wrong. - File
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Aubyn Hill,  Financial Gleaner Columnist

WHEN THE American university, to which I applied to do my first degree, asked on its application form who outside my family had the greatest influence on my life, she got the vote.

She is the beloved Mrs Madeline Reid of Top Hill Primary School in south St Elizabeth.

Soon after I entered her school from the Salvation Army Basic School, a few hundred yards down the road, Mrs Reid - she was the wife of the headmaster - took me under her wing.

She taught me the capitals of countries around the world, and their presidents and prime ministers in a time of rapid changes to postcolonial independent states.

She taught me English and mathematics outside of classes, which caused me to be bored and mischievous in some. "Grumpy" headmaster Reid saw me as a troublemaker, but we knew he couldn't cross Mrs Reid - smart kids work out those dynamics early.

I believed I was Mrs Reid's pet, but I was not the only one. So were Erwin Burton, the recently retired deputy CEO of GraceKennedy and former CEO of GraceKennedy's food division; Delores Myers - probably first among equals of the pets; the three beautiful Richie girls - they who are related to Colin Powell; Branford Gayle - the former headmaster of Munro College, and his three sisters; the two McKinley girls and their two brothers; and Winsome Reynolds, among scores of others.

She prepared us all very well for Munro College, Hampton School and St Elizabeth Technical High School.

Nor can I forget the many fine teachers at Munro College - now professor Mervyn Morris and Mrs Morris - she taught us Castilian Spanish, Steve Harle, Messrs Telfer, Warren and Walton, and Miss Cohn from Israel, who became one of the main objects of our fanciful desires as the hormones kicked in hard in fourth and fifth forms.

The legendary Richard and Merle Roper - he was headmaster - kept us balanced with clear and fair discipline, and tuned our moral compasses with their unequivocal Christian faith.

I love teachers and treasure what mine, at four levels of education, have done for me.

Still, teachers are humans.

RANCOROUS DEBATE

The ongoing and sometimes rancorous debate between the minister and Ministry of Education on one hand and the executive of the Jamaica Teachers' Association (JTA) on the other has splashed into the public domain. Last week, The Gleaner chose to make it the subject of one of its daily editorials.

Regrettably, the last comprehensive reform of the education system and arrangements covering teachers' benefits and compensation took place in 1980.

The official line goes like this. Our Government spends $80 billion on the education budget and 73 per cent of that budget is spent on salaries. It is reported that about 60 per cent of that $80 billion goes to pay teachers.

Our teachers are supposed to spend 190 days each year instructing students. The small matter of extended vacation time gets in the way of those contracted instruction days. The Education Regulations 1980 (The Code) states in Section 64(2)(a) that vacation leave of one school term may be granted to a principal who has served as principal in public institutions for at least four years immediately prior to the start of the leave; and (b) that for other categories of teachers who have served as teachers in public educational institutions for at least five years immediately prior to the start of the leave.

Principals and teachers tend to accumulate their leave over eight- to 10-year periods so they can take two terms off in one go.

Also, although there are 175 non-instructional days available for leave to be taken during each year, it appears to be the practice that these vacation days are taken extensively during school instruction days. Commentators have been calling this practice by teachers, selfish.

While teachers ring-fence and guard their rights, many in the society see them disregarding - even trampling on - the rights of students, parents, teachers' employers and us as general taxpayers who pay so much of their salaries.

The vexing issue of this extensive colonial-era vacation time has to be addressed. The education ministry states that it cost taxpayers $2.5 billion to employ and pay about 2,000 additional teachers to cover lost teaching time due to vacations.

But who is responsible to effect these changes? The government elected by citizens - a majority of those who vote are tax payers - is obliged to negotiate the changes.

For 34 years, we have kept what has become a costly and probably archaic arrangement. It took the IMF to bring this costly benefit into sharp focus - as it has done for so many other economic maladies that hurt our country.

Minister Thwaites has good reform intent but, unfortunately, the election calendar means he should have executed his intentions sooner. If he tries for important reform now, his Cabinet colleagues will deliver a huge pushback. The teachers cannot be offended going into an election season.

The matter of teacher tenure has been the topic of discussion. Those who raise the issue should be informed that the Ministry of Education pays teachers but is not their employer.

Individual school boards are teachers' bosses. The education piper, the taxpayer, pays teachers; and school boards, lots of political appointees, call the tune.

The taxpayers are the fools in this equation.

Aubyn Hill is CEO of Corporate Strategies and chairman of the Opposition Leader's Economic Advisory Council.Email: writerhill@gmail.comTwitter: @HillAubynFacebook: facebook.com/Corporate.Strategies