Sat | May 25, 2019

Ronald Thwaites | Education and training: The path to growth

Published:Monday | May 13, 2019 | 12:30 AM

Always remember the premise we must start from. The only way to achieve high growth for the nation, a wholesome social climate and the prospect of personal achievement for all is the exponential rather than the incremental transformation of education and training. Every Jamaican has to become a lifelong learner, and all of our children…yes, all… must be equipped as early as possible with the basic social, academic and technical competencies to enable them to pursue new learning throughout their lives.

This is the way Cuba, Singapore, South Korea and Finland have done it. There is no other way. The prerequisites are the presence and enablement of at least one person, but preferably two natural parents, who love and are unselfishly dedicated to the welfare of each child, reasonable community support, good nutrition, spiritual formation and a transformed school system.

Let us return to the focus on behavioural change, which is where we ended last week. There are some promising initiatives to report. One is the experiment Dr Horace Chang has initiated in Glendevon, St James, where separating boys and girls and buttressing gender-specific instruction with strong leadership models has begun to prevent many boys from drifting into gang culture.

Of note, too, is the infusion of new hope through education begun by Dr Omar Davies in South St Andrew and carried on by Mark Golding. What goes on at the Trench Town Polytechnic College and at the Rockhouse ‘s Inclusive Infant Institute in Sav-la-Mar are worthy models of what transformation of the very system and structure of education can mean.

In every such case, flexibility of approach and fiercely innovative leadership are essential. When will we, as government and profession, get around to face the fact that a mandatory 60-year-old retirement age is no longer serviceable? Some people in education need to go long before that, while others, just mature and in control of their institutions, are being sent home prematurely because of their age.

SCARCE TALENT

Mind you, this is happening although talent is scarce. We have lost more than 100 of our best math and science teachers this year alone to foreign markets. And the scholarship programme that we put in place to train and retain replacements is a shadow of what was intended.

Since we lose multiples of those we are training, not least because of the silly practice of paying good, average and poor teachers at the same rate and requiring scant accountability, the predicament is getting more severe. The rigidity of the contractual system with public-school teachers, the lumping of their wage negotiations with the rest of the public sector, all are inefficiencies which we mindlessly continue to visit upon ourselves, even as we profess to love our children.

Recall the example Richard Azan gave at the Standing Finance Committee when he spoke of a school, now depleted in numbers, which has nine extra teachers – all tenured there for life, while another school down the road, now overcrowded, needed teachers but none can be involuntarily transferred. What could be done, he asked the then education minister? There was no answer.

Why are the Jamaica Teaching Council Bill and the reformed Education Regulations taking so long to enact? And realise that these constitute only a fraction of the changes needed to transform teaching in Jamaica. No one government, no matter how bellicose, will be able to effect the required policies.

But we have not yet begun the consensus-building that is required. It is a bad sign that up to now, the National Council on Education, the multi-representational body specifically designed to promote policy and advise a minister, remains unconstituted for over a year. Arrogance and confusion are holding us back.

CRITICAL PROBLEMS

Here are some critical problems. One-fifth of our children are still not going to school on any given day. Missing 20 per cent of the school week is a recipe for failure. In most cases, the reason for absence is lack of lunch money, bus fare or wearable shoes and clothing.

Everyone is grateful for the improvements in the PATH benefits needed by easily half of the entire cohort of over 700,000, but nothing could be more crucial than further targeted increased allocations to bring attendance up to date. The money given now cannot stretch beyond three days – if as much. And please give the school principals discretion as to allocation. They know the situation of their children best.

Radical new thinking must be applied also to the vital and expensive issue of school feeding. The majority of those in school, at all levels, need to be fed good Jamaican food for breakfast and lunch every day. Not just because this would increase aggregate demand for agriculture, but because it would create the very foundation upon which any and all education can take place.

Nutrition Products Ltd is limping. Why? It was left in a profitable position in 2016. I would like to encourage the ministries of agriculture, Health and education and the commercial sector, to combine to make a revolutionised school-feeding programme a priority by this coming September. Reducing sugary drinks is just the start.

Next time, let us treat some of the urgent and affordable changes required at the different levels of the educational system.

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