Ronald Thwaites | Confront, resolve education issues now
The Jamaica Teachers' Association (JTA) is probably the most powerful interest group in Jamaica. The teaching craft commands much emotional support - much more, I wager, than the police or the private sector - and the teachers are well resourced and effectively organised.
Looking back, the teachers were crucial to the birth and sustainability of the national movement and even now they provide vital woman-power to operate the electoral system, the churches and most national institutions.
And there is not one of us who has made anything of ourself who does not have to be thankful to an inspired teacher. But conversely, there are multitudes of talents wasted and personalities deformed in no small part by the callouness or sheer ignorance of poor teachers.
Teachers may have lost the pre-eminence of a century ago as the pearl of Jamaican professionalism, but their trade union cum professional association is both very influential and hopelessly torn between its two conflicting roles.
Over many recent years, the trade union concerns of the JTA have taken centre stage. In education, labour (i.e. the teachers) have not led development. The big policy initiatives for change have come from governments with the teachers' union exercising an effective veto over any aspects they disapproved of.
At the same time, schools in Jamaica have become the major institutions of positive socialisation and the entire prospect of national development dependent on the particular competencies and skills which teachers' transmit.
So what are the prospects at this crucial time of cooperation by the teachers union with the surge of reforms contained in the Jamaica Teaching Council legislation, as well as the equally important reformation of the Education Regulations (1980)?
Make no mistake: All of the new institutions set up for education transformation will have blunted effect without serious change in the way teachers are trained, employed, held accountable and disciplined.
Let us be specific. Up to now, the JTA has wanted its members to have a majority on the Jamaica Teaching Council. This would give the union effective control. They have also resisted change in the rubrics which virtually tenure a teacher for life on appointment to a school after one year of probationary service.
There are close to 3,000 employed teachers, no doubt JTA members among them, surplus to the establishment, whose expense effectively prevents the differential pay required to reward and retain scarce teacher talent.
These are only some of the difficult issues which, if we really want better school outcomes, must be confronted and resolved now. The parties have been talking for several years. Consultation is essential but must not be a foil to delay decisive change.
All this must take place in the context of new wage negotiations, which will begin now to be effective in the next budget year. And how much longer will our creditors and our own self-interest allow us to kick the can of thorough-going public-sector reform down the road?
This is the hour then for the progressive reformers in the JTA, led by an experienced President and secretary general, to negotiate a good deal for their members in exchange for cooperating with essential changes which can alter Jamaica's future.
Mature political will on all sides can make it possible. Vacuous promises about house and car for everyone demean the process.
- Ronald Thwaites is member of parliament for Kingston Central and opposition spokesman on education. Email feedback to email@example.com