The opportunity of Charlie Smith, Trench Town
Given their penchant for crafting problems out of solutions, it is a good sign, perhaps, that we have heard nothing from the Jamaica Teachers' Association about the education ministry's decision to merge the Charlie Smith and Trench Town high schools in southern St Andrew. Good sense may be prevailing.
For the plan, as outlined by Ronald Thwaites, the education minister, is sensible - at least on two fronts.
While not the most striking examples of the impact of demographic and social realignments on Jamaican schools, Charlie Smith and Trench Town are among those with far fewer students than for which the plants were built to accommodate.
Charlie Smith, for instance, was built to accommodate 800 students. In the last academic year, 590 students were enrolled there. For this one, the figure is down to 548, or 68 per cent of its capacity. In other words, the school, conceivably, could accommodate one-third more students. The situation is worse at Trench Town High, where 453 students are enrolled, or seven per cent fewer than last term. But the school was built for a capacity of 1,200, or 64 per cent more than its current enrolment.
ACRESOF EMPTY SPACE
Put another way, there are acres of empty space at these facilities, suggesting a far less than efficient use of the plants.
Indeed, the problem is far worse in many schools in the system. At the start of last year, for example, there were more than 200 schools, built for much larger populations, with enrolment of fewer than 100 students. In many cases, teacher-student ratios in these schools are 1:12, which would be far better than most of the world's most elite institutions.
But the Ministry of Education has had a problem rationalising such mismatches, and others. Although teachers are paid by the central Government, they are employed by individual schools, answerable to their specific boards and, therefore, can't be arbitrarily transferred by the ministry. This is a matter that requires urgent legislative remedy.
The other reason why the proposed merger of Charlie Smith and Trench Town, if properly handled, is eminently sensible, is that both are failing schools.
In each of the past two years of the regional secondary-schools exams, only 16 students at Charlie Smith passed English, for pass rates of 18 per cent and 31 per cent, respectively, in 2013 and 2014. At Trench Town, their Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate English passes in each of those two years was 23 students, or 36.5 per cent and 20 per cent, respectively. So, even with only a handful of the grade 11 cohort of either school writing the exams, the outcomes were, to say the least, disastrous.
The merging of the schools is an opportunity to spread, in so far as they exist at an institution, best practices as well as a more efficient utilisation of available resources. But more important, it provides the institutions the opportunity for a fresh start.
In can't, therefore, be business as usual. And leadership matters.
It will, therefore, likely require - and we would suggest it to the ministry - the recruitment of a new leader for the merged institutions, who should be hired on a target-oriented basis, with clear deadlines for each transformational deliverable. Further, the ministry should experiment with giving the academic principal a free hand to recruit the pedagogic staff and to link remuneration with performance.