Wed | Sep 20, 2017

Ronald Thwaites | On school leadership

Published:Monday | October 24, 2016 | 10:00 AM

Recently, I had the opportunity to address the Association of Principals and Vice-principals of High Schools in Jamaica. These are persons, mostly women, with responsibility for the outcomes of our young people between grades seven and 13, encompassing the teenage years.

Associations of principals of all types of schools ought to constitute powerful lobbies for educational improvement. Recent attempts to broad-brush them as extortionists are contemptible.

All of them are experienced teachers who have transitioned into administration. They ought to be held accountable to parents, the State and their school communities. They are expected to remediate the perhaps half of their student body who enter with cognitive, emotional or social challenges and to discover and nurture the varied, individual talents of all in their care.

They preside over teachers whose qualifications, but not their quality, are generally uniform. Their power to advance those staff members who do well and to discipline or exclude those who perform poorly is very limited.

The present Education Code is little help for school managers. It is overripe for reform.

I believe all of these school leaders want to do well by their students and communities. The main obstacle is not so much money but the reality that most schools are sent students each year who are not ready for the secondary curriculum that high schools have to offer.

Yes, not ready after eight years of pre-primary and primary schooling!

Except for those so-called traditional schools that attract students with very high GSAT scores, many principals have to cope with high levels of illiteracy and innumeracy among their entering students. And there are many others in all high schools who come with the baggage of behaviour maladjustment, broken family situations, unsolved nutritional, physical and emotional problems, all of which will affect their learning receptivity.

In many respects, therefore, principals and vice-principals are given straw baskets to carry water. It is time they demand that entering students have minimum standards of readiness for secondary education.

Funding remediation programmes, costing billions each year and producing indifferent results, is an inefficient way of solving a problem that should, and could, have been dealt with many years earlier.

Mark Ricketts, in a recent Sunday Gleaner article, articulated graphically the disappointment and vulnerability of the thousands who leave high school without matriculation requirements. Edward Seaga, a week earlier, re-emphasised how crucial the infant and early primary experience is to what follows higher up on the educational ladder.

Two practical and affordable measures are needed to curb the rot. By 2018, the reformation of the early-childhood system should be complete. Instead of some 2,600 basic schools, we should have about 800 infant schools, each with a specialist trained teacher (most of whom can be found with appropriate retraining, within the existing cohort), a consistent nutritional programme and, most important of all, a curriculum focused on character formation and appropriate behaviour.

A condition of enrolment, as significant as the birth or immunisation certificates, must be the cultivation of a bond between parent and school.

Once this emphasis is carried through the first three primary grades with appropriate opportunities to correct early detected challenges, there will be exponentially more able students entering the high-school system later on.

FAULTY SOCIALISATION

The raw truth is that faulty or inadequate socialisation at the early-childhood level is the major obstacle to achieving transformed outcomes from the whole system. Spend the money and expend the effort at this level rather than waiting till deficiencies have festered into full-blown problems during the teenage years.

Since there will always have to be a place for conduct and competency correction, every high-school student who shows attitudinal deficiencies should have mandatory exposure to uniformed group discipline and training.

Let the principals determine those who need this experience. Existing units of cadets, scouts and other bodies can be improved or established with increased capacity for behaviour modification.

What is obvious is that the present emphasis of remediation on repeating lessons or redoing skills is ineffective because it fails to address the largely social pathologies of many of our young people.

Our principals deserve to be heeded, not cowed.

n Ronald Thwaites is member of parliament for Central Kingston and opposition spokesman on education and training. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.