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Editorial: Thwaites right to close schools

Published:Friday | July 24, 2015 | 7:00 AM

A handful of critics can be expected to reflexively contort themselves into knots over the education ministry's decision to close 18 primary schools whose utility has been severely undermined by demographic shifts.

Already, the bleat has begun from Alexander Williams, the Jamaica Labour Party's (JLP) parliamentary hopeful for East Rural St Andrew, who complained about the plan for Clifton Primary, which is located in the constituency. We, however, expect a more thoughtful response from Kamina Johnson-Smith, the JLP's shadow education minister, who tends to be sensible on matters of policy.

Indeed, if anything, Ronald Thwaites, the education minister, should be commended for what, essentially, is an effort to reallocate resources for their more efficient use. As Mr Thwaites told Parliament this week, the schools that will not be reopened at the start of the new school year in September had enrolments of between 16 and 68. They were built to accommodate hundreds.

"In some communities where the schools are located, the population has been declining, with a small number of youth and many older persons as residents," he explained.

 

misalignment of resources

 

Among the results of these developments is the misalignment of resources and outcomes. For example, on average, the Government spends around J$88,000 a year on each child in the primary system. In these schools, the average spend is nearly twice that. Further, while the teacher-pupil ratios, as low as 1:7, at these schools were substantially better than the national average, they didn't translate to improved performance. In fact, their outcomes trailed by a significant margin the 77 per cent of children who mastered the requirements for literacy at grade four; and their average test scores at grade six were below the national performance.

It would not be unkind, we feel, to characterise these as failing schools.

In responding to the twin challenges left by demographic realignment and underperformance, Mr Thwaites has now to ensure that the affected students are not victimised further. The first line of protection is to ensure that the students are now enrolled in schools where educational outcomes are substantially better and that, if required, they get special help. Nor should the change mean an unplanned, unbearable economic burden on parents.

 

GOV'T SHOULD OFFSET COSTS

 

We, therefore, welcome the initiative to provide transportation and meal subsidies, where necessary, to affected students. The Government must seek to offset this cost not only against the savings it will gain from the closure of the schools, but by actually earning cash from the sale of the idle plants. Divestment must be aggressively pursued.

This, of course, ought not to be the end of Mr Thwaites' rationalisation programme. There are, we believe, many other schools with too few students and too many teachers, or teachers who do not operate in their areas of expertise, or whose skills are not optimised. The minister must, in the circumstance, move swiftly to change the laws to allow greater flexibility in reassignment and transfers.

There is also the matter of the overgenerous and unaffordable leave entitlements enjoyed by teachers, which take big bites out of the education budget and which Mr Thwaites had planned to tackle. They are of some urgency.