Colin Steer | Church-run schools: facts vs fiction
I have found the concerns expressed in a series of articles in The Gleaner about perceived State overreach in church-run schools to be strange at best and, at times, quite rich in the lack of fidelity to truth and the bigger picture.
First, readers would be left with the impression that the church representatives were calling for dialogue about their concerns with the Ministry of Education, Youth and Information where none exists. This is far from the case.
Representatives of the Ecumenical Education Council meet on a termly basis at the ministry. This group includes Archbishop Donald Reece, Paul Miller and Grace Baston, who were quoted in the articles. Other current members are: Archbishop of Kingston Kenneth Richards; Alexander Bourne, chairman of the Education Commission of the United Church in Jamaica and Grand Cayman; Diana Davis-Smith, executive director of the Catholic College; Rudyard Ellis, representative of the JBU; Maria Campbell-Letts, Suzan Hitchener, Pauline Russell, and Ursula Khan - representatives of the Roman Catholic Church; Winston Jackson and Radley Reid - representatives of the Methodist Church; Dr Brian Morgan, chairman of the Munro and Dickinson Trust; Ena Barclay, director of Anglican schools; and, more recently, David Wilson, president of the Jamaica Association of Principals of Secondary Schools; and Georgia Waugh-Richards, president of the Jamaica Teachers' Association.
So there is ongoing dialogue and a forum where the concerns can be and are aired regularly, and, indeed at times requests have been accommodated. More important, what is it that the ministry has stated as its policy towards church-run schools and what is the rationale?
The gravamen of the church reps' complaints seems to be that the State is out of order to ask for accountability despite being asked to provide support from the public purse. I cannot imagine where else an organisation can be expected to comply with a request or expectation that it provides substantial funding to another and stay on the sidelines looking in and wondering what is going on. The idea that because a school was founded by a church denomination and may currently fall under the management of a church-nominated, but more important, a minister-appointed board, that its operations are, de facto, beyond questioning does not square with experience.
In addition, as part of the Government's policy to improve standards at the early childhood level, the Early Childhood Commission now requires basic schools to improve their operations in the hiring and vetting of personnel and general financial and operational systems. The ministry is insisting and providing support to these schools in their efforts to attain the standards, which will qualify them for certification under the Early Childhood Education Act (2005). This is for the good of our children.
Many independent schools, some aligned to churches, have been operating with severe deficiencies and sometimes insufficient oversight. The Government, recognising that these schools serve an important role, has had to intervene or been requested to provide financial help to prevent some from closing down. Where public funds are being provided, the Government must have a seat at the table. It cannot just be a silent partner.
NON-MANDATORY FEES POLICY
Section 4 of the Education Act (1965) includes within the particular authority of the minister, the power to render to any student or class of students such forms of assistance as may be necessary to enable such student or class of students to take full advantage of the educational facilities available - subject to such conditions as may be prescribed.
In the exercise of this authority, the incumbent minister has included in the current non-mandatory fees policy, the directive that registration packages for students should range from $1,000 to $5,000 for the 2017-2018 school year, and further mandated schools to ensure that discussions are held with their parent-teachers association regarding contributions.
Under this current non-mandatory fees policy the ministry has directed that students in public schools should not be denied from entering schools because of the inability to pay. This policy has not rested well with boards of management, particularly in some of our church-owned, government-grant-aided secondary schools, as they continue to insist on determining fees that place great strain on the average working-class parent's income.
The ministry is also redoubling its internal audit activities and insisting that ALL schools present their quarterly and annual financial statements and audited accounts.
Public discourse on public policy is necessary in a democracy. An honest accounting by those who participate will serve the public cause better.