Thu | Nov 23, 2017

Ronald Thwaites | Priorities for education

Published:Monday | September 4, 2017 | 12:00 AM
Lionel Rookwood/Photographer Students from the downtown Kingston-based Calabar All-Age School carry a desk-bench combination to their classroom in preparation for the new academic term.

Jamaicans nowadays understand more than in the recent past how important good education and training is to personal success and national development. We used to revel in mere access to schooling. Now we want quality for all. This is good.

This newspaper thinks that more money from the CHASE Fund and the entire allocation for the Constituency Development Fund ought to be directed towards education. When there is a functioning welfare system, reasonably adequate employment opportunities and properly funded health and education facilities, this is one member of parliament who would forgo the CDF and all the stresses and temptations connected with it.

It will cost the nation about $180 billion a year to fund a really quality education and training apparatus like Finland, South Korea or Singapore. That's close to a quarter of this year's entire national budget. It won't be required all at once, and, despite the posturing, cannot all be provided by any government in the foreseeable future. But the investment is necessary if Jamaica is to work for all and not only for some.

Money alone won't do it, either. There will have to be huge changes in how, why, and what goes into teaching and learning, as well as by whom.

This much-needed process of transformation will take at least 10 years to show fulsome results. That is at least two election cycles.

The present efforts at reordering the sector have only scratched the surface of the archaic institutional practices that must give way. But the process over the past decade and more has pointed the way, engrafted some new structures on to the old, and, most usefully, mined loads of data that can guide radical change.

There is no dispute about the end product. Following Vision 2030, we want everyone to be socially well-adjusted, literate in English, numerate, digitally competent and with at least one employable skill or trade.

 

National priority

 

There can be no higher personal and national priority. The discourse must begin now to plan for the decade-long pilgrimage towards universal quality schooling and training to start next year, having largely wasted this budget cycle with tinkering.

By the very scope and cost of the venture, an active consensus - which is quite different from passive acquiescence of one side towards the process - between the two political tendencies likely to form government is essential. For once (again..?), the political parties must adjust their often dysfunctional praxis to serve a national development imperative.

This is a prerequisite for a campaign to command the attention, effort and sacrifice of all citizens and culture agents. Convene a national conference before year end to settle a plan, costing and time frame, and assign responsibilities for execution. Then fashion the nation's next and succeeding budgets and social priorities accordingly.

For today, everyone hopes for a smooth start to the new school year. There has been tremendous investment by parents, businesses and the Government. Expectations are very high.

There is still time and there are sufficient existing resources to achieve even more of those hopes and dreams. The following examples are itemised to encourage early action.

First, every school community should ensure that breakfast and lunch are available for perhaps half of the students who, in an undeniable context of increasing poverty, cannot provide for themselves.

Also, it is still possible to remedy the textbook shortage and to modify the crushing and unaffordable book lists that have been prescribed.

Then, school leaders can become even more creative in devising payment plans and in-kind contributions from parents, every one of whom has a voucher in hand, despite the folly being prated so as to discount the vital importance of family participation in school financing.

Any school with less than 95 per cent attendance must receive the swift attention of board, community and state authorities.

And, if it has not been done thoroughly during the summer, when many young people regress or pick up bad habits, every school should spend days and, if necessary, weeks of this first term, not on the formal syllabus but in comprehensive orientation of all, especially entering students, emphasising appropriate behaviour, study habits and serviceable moral values and civic attitudes.

After all, proper priorities in education are critical to national well-being.

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