Wed | Sep 18, 2019

Ronald Thwaites | Answers, please, Mr Holness

Published:Monday | August 19, 2019 | 12:08 AM

Five months have passed since the prime minister relieved Ruel Reid of his appointment as minister of education. Since then, Mr Holness has not seen fit to explain to the country the reasons for his swift action, thus fuelling a welter of speculation within and beyond the sector, even as a toxic dribble of malfeasance at the ministry and some of its agencies continues to be wrenched out of public officials by the Public Administration and Appropriations Committee of Parliament.

This is no way to govern a most sensitive area of national life and it reflects badly on the nation’s chief servant and compromises our confidence in his commitment to fight corruption.

First, Ruel Reid was no ordinary minister. He was hand-picked to lead what can be considered the most crucial national task. Reid was special and close to his leader. The nation is bound to ask what the prime minister knew about the dubious happenings at the education ministry.

It is hard to believe that so many controversial appointments could have been made, so many incumbents removed, so many contracts struck, so much money transferred here and there without the leader hearing or knowing something. Mr Holness needs to speak to these issues, and more, in order to vindicate his high office.

Bureaucracy a bugbear

Amid the obsessively heavy bureaucracy that slows down every righteous project, wouldn’t the head of Reid’s political party have had to enquire where the largesse being lavished in North West St Ann was coming from?

And more: What about the report coming out of the Jamaica College old boys’ meeting that Ruel Reid’s contract as principal was renewed, even as he served as minister, at the request of the prime minister. Why would he have made such a request?

Which of our public-sector watchdogs was paying attention to the extended period when the council of the Caribbean Maritime University, a recipient of public funds, was not active? And by the way, is there a functional National Council on Education yet?

The nation has been enjoined to wait for answers until investigations are complete. Well, yes, but five months have elapsed with more smelly stuff being exhumed by the week. And since addressing most of these matters need not interfere with the determination of criminal guilt, recourse to this argument offers no justification for Mr Holness’ defensive silence.

Meanwhile, adding to our insistence that there is indeed a crisis in education, immediate attention must be paid to two most critical aspects. The first is the issue of nutrition for needy students. Half of them, around 300,000 – not 70,000, Minister Samuda – lack the resources from home to be properly nourished. At several graduation ceremonies this season, mention has been made of the abrupt, unexplained stoppage of the breakfast programme in schools. This is cruel. Hunger is one important factor explaining absenteeism, indiscipline and poor outcomes. An additional $1 billion per annum would go a far way to assure that each Jamaican student begins the schoolday this September with adequate calories to promote energy and receptiveness.

Next, the reorganisation of early-childhood education has begun to lag with insufficient attention bring paid to high-quality teaching and the cultivation of good values and attitudes. A comprehensive plan for the revolutionising of this segment of the school system is required, before the next Budget cycle begins, so that more resources can be provided.

The flat allocations to education for this financial year ought to be redressed in early Supplementary Estimates. Here again, Mr Holness needs to show decisive leadership.

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