Ronald Thwaites | Consensus in education
When the education transformation effort was conceived around 2004, an understanding was wrought that so vital was education to personal and national development that sector policies should be elevated beyond the all-too-normal partisan squabbles. The resolve was to seek consensus and, as far as possible, jointure of effort in all matters to do with the training of our young people.
Since then, while not without serious breach at times, the effort has been to consult often and to keep an open door between the minister and the opposition spokesperson. This as a matter of principle, no matter the personalities involved.
I contend that this should be a model of operation for all government in a society where there are few options and great need, whoever is in power.
While in office, I welcomed the advice and helpful input of Marisa Dalrymple-Philibert and, later, Kamina Johnson Smith. And this did not stop them being critical when they thought it was warranted. The changes and appointments that had to be made during this period were done on the basis of performance and competence, without reference to party preference. I hoped that we had established the principle that tribalism has no place in education.
Since leaving office two years ago, I have been chagrined at the all-too-obvious separation, on the grounds of political bias, of many bright and productive people from service to education. Also, the flow of information and access from the Ministry of Education to the Opposition has been fitful and inadequate, except when recourse was had to one particular senior officer.
This situation meant that when each year's Estimates of Expenditure for the sector came up before the Standing Finance Committee of the House of Representatives, that occasion provided the single opportunity to interrogate how effectively the people's money is proposed to be spent. So there can be no apology for taking enough time to test each line of spending against the often unspoken outcome targets.
This Government resents when you question them in any detail. They believe that all wisdom resides in their projections and habitually evince more triumphalism than any other administration I have observed. Also, last week, at least two of the members appeared disorderly and drunk with more than the usual impatience and hubris.
So the proceedings of the committee of the whole House, instead of illuminating how the whopping $700 billion taken out of people's pockets will be fruitfully spent, become contentious and rubber-stamping as if the Cabinet were some autocratic monarch.
The proposal for Jamaica to adopt a system of zero budgeting for the coming financial year has been ignored on the Order Paper for six months while we pretend to be concerned about waste in the public service.
However, things have changed for the better regarding education this year. During the week before he would appear before the Standing Finance Committee, Senator Reid offered a meeting with Michael Stewart, MP, and me when with great cordiality and collegiality, he granted explanation and supporting information on several important areas of the ministry's plans and budget for this year.
And since there were many serious matters that time did not allow us to discuss and that would, therefore, have to be treated at the House sitting, I provided a list of those in advance so that the minister and his staff could prepare themselves to give fulsome answers.
The result was one of the more civil, sharp and enlightening reviews of a budget than experienced recently. The quality of the exchange made it easier to ignore the growling and belching from the few on the government benches, who kept chatting disrespectfully while their own colleague was speaking and who clearly have little interest in education and training.
Minister Reid has proposed quarterly meetings with the opposition spokespersons. These ought to be helpful and are indicative of an intention on both sides to revive and deepen the spirit of 2004.
There are serious and fundamental ills in education that have to be critiqued, not least of which is the sad fact that despite the minister of finance and so many others recognising that inadequate human-resource development is the greatest cramp to growth, the education and training budget is flat this year and projected to remain behind likely inflation levels for the next four years. So no wonder if we keep on getting low or no growth.
These issues will be the subject of future writings.
The ineluctable truth is that no one side can solve the problem by themselves, no matter what their pretensions. But forging a consensus and acting in accordance with it would ensure the strongest assault on what is surely Jamaica's most chronic malady - the maldevelopment of too many of our youth.
- Ronald Thwaites is member of parliament for Kingston Central and opposition spokesman on education and training. Email feedback to email@example.com.