Paulton Frankson | Education policy on the fly
It has become clear that Minister of Education Ruel Reid does not have a proper conception of the policymaking process and has surrendered the wisdom of technocrats to that of mediacrats. His desire to always be seen in a positive light in the media has seen him formulate policy positions on controversial issues without the proper analysis that should inform policy.
In his attempt to respond to every item of news or negative story about the education sector, Reid has not only sidelined the staff within the Ministry of Education but has evolved into a dictator of sorts who seems to want to silence anyone who does not agree with him. The separation of Dr Maurice Smith from his post as permanent secretary in the Ministry of Education is the ultimate expression of his leadership deficit.
Most, if not all, of the declarations of policy that have been spewed by Reid do not appear to have been based on research identifying root causes and leading to design of a suite of solutions to address problems effectively. The reactionary approach which Reid has taken to education policy does not augur well for the fragile reform process which has taken place in the ministry through the Education System Transformation Programme.
By a cursory count, Reid has made about 10 such policy declarations since becoming minister and each has been the result of his need to constantly titillate those in the media who are at his heels baying for immediate responses to issues which really demand silent action and long-term strategic approaches. Instead of taking the long view, Reid is all too happy to give in to the sensationalist approach so cherished by the media.
When school administrators at Penwood High were negligent in their responsibility to submit students' School-Based Assessments to the Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC), he declared war on the regional examination body and the Overseas Examination Commission, calling into disrepute the credibility of two institutions that have served us well, all in a bid to be seen as a hero.
News of the poor performance of students in mathematics is also another example where Reid's reaction to media reports has sabotaged the policymaking process. He swiftly announced the establishment of a Mathematics Consortium when a National Mathematics Committee already exists. Not only has the National Mathematics Committee already done all of the things Reid has proposed that the consortium will do, but they have actually developed a National Mathematics Policy Guideline and the attendant work plan to drive improvements in mathematics performance across the education system. If Reid had taken the time to speak with officials in the ministry, he would have realised that solutions are already being implemented for the problems being regurgitated by the media.
Education policy solutions take time, and particularly in regards to student performance, there really are no quick fixes, so this tendency of the education minister to deliver microwave solutions is quite worrying. That Mathematics Consortium he has set up is just a duplication that will not yield much results. The poor performance in mathematics is well studied and the solutions were already being implemented through the National Mathematics Programme. While there are reasonable grounds to question the results being achieved by the programme, its basic philosophy was designed on sound evidence that indicates the poor performance in mathematics is driven by the generally poor pedagogy and questionable competence of mathematics teachers. The National Mathematics Programme sought to address this problem by assigning coaches who work with teachers to improve classroom delivery. The research on the effectiveness of coaching of teachers as a tool to improve the teaching and learning of mathematics is abundant and easily accessible for Reid to have looked at before declaring that he will be changing the programme to have the coaches target the students instead of the teachers.
The problem is not with the students, but with how the subject is being taught. Not only will a change of this nature derail the progress that has been made under the programme, but it will prove to be logistically improbable given that the 45 mathematics coaches will be stretched thin if they are required to service the more than 200,000 students in the secondary system.
Additionally, the supposed removal of auxiliary fees has proven to be nothing more than a grand populist stunt. With a name change to non-obligatory contribution, parents are still being encouraged to pay fees, which they clearly have no problem doing, given that the compliance rate for collection fell only six per cent after the new policy of no mandatory fees was introduced. Given that we are entering a new IMF agreement, he will be hard-pressed to keep up this charade of subsidising fees already being paid by parents and putting a strain on the Government's purse.
The proposal by Reid to enshrine secondary education as a right is also ill-advised. The practice of creaming students is perhaps the greatest hindrance to student rights in the secondary education system. Creaming systematically denies students an opportunity to sit external exam, which are usually a predictor of economic success and upward social mobility. How can Reid then talk about secondary education as a right when he has publicly supported creaming students? He should seek to address the fundamental issues affecting the education sector rather than continue this dangerous practice of making education policy on the fly.