Editorial | That PNP commission on education
If the electorate were to any time soon give the People's National Party (PNP) another opportunity to form Jamaica's government, they should come to office knowing what they want to do and be clear about their policy priorities.
Peter Phillips, the party's new president, four months on the job, has so appointed commissions to formulate policies in three critical areas on which there has been much public discussions - the latest being on education. The other two are on land reform and a 'new economy', which we suppose means one adapted to the technological world of the 21st century.
This effort in education is particularly noteworthy, not only for the subject, but in its timing and Dr Phillips' choice of personnel. Its launch coincides with the start of a new school year and the quarrel over the financing of schools, pitting the education minister, Ruel Reid, against the administrators of a number of high schools, over whether the money the Government provides is sufficient and if, and how much, parents should contribute to their children's education.
Jamaica will this year spend around J$90 billion on education, which is nearly 16 per cent of the Government's total expenditure, or a quarter of the Budget if debt-service charges are taken out. Many complain that the Government doesn't get value for money.
At grade four, where there has been substantial improvements in recent years, around 20 per cent of the nine- and 10-year-olds don't meet the requirements for literacy; up to a fifth of the cohort that starts high school at grade seven drop out by grade 11; and only a quarter of students who write CSEC exams pass five subjects - the benchmark for matriculation to higher education - in a single sitting.
Further, performance across schools is uneven. At grade four, and later at grade six when students transition to secondary education, children at private preparatory schools generally do better than those who attend the government primary schools. And in CSEC exams, students at a handful of so-called traditional high schools outperform their colleagues at the other institutions.
A task force led by educator Rae Davis was established by PNP administrations of the early 2000s to provide what were to be definitive solutions to these problems. There have been some gains, but the task force's recommendations were never fully implemented because of a shortage of money. It is against this backdrop that the current Holness administration, having increased the education budget, told high schools to end demanding obligatory auxiliary fees from parents and faced a backlash from schools.
Dr Phillips' recently launched commission's mandate includes:
- Redefining the metrics/scorecard for measuring the efficiency, performance, progress, or the quality of educational provision and outcomes.
- Recommending structures and approaches to promote equity and social justice for all.
- Recommending ways to reposition teacher education and development, as well as the promotion of learning at all levels of the education and training system.
The question is whether these ideas fully capture the education sector's requirements and how they will translate to specific policies. There is also the issue of whether the group chosen by Dr Phillips is sufficiently broad or catholic to do the job.
Notably, the task force is led by Elaine Foster-Allen, former permanent secretary for education, who served for a long time as principal of Shortwood Teachers' College, and includes that institution's current principal, Christopher Clarke, as well as Marsha Smalling, principal of Glenmuir High School. Another member, Joan Spencer-Ernandez, teaches special education at the University of the West Indies. Patricia Sutherland is not specifically from the education sector and has a background in private enterprise.
We wait to see whether their recommendations will stir thoughtful, non-partisan debate.