Wed | Jan 22, 2020

Ronald Thwaites | The drift from the classroom

Published:Monday | January 13, 2020 | 12:12 AM
Owen Speid

Frighteningly, it is really not a DRIFT anymore but a RUSH from our classrooms. Most school principals are seeing their best teachers migrating or contemplating leaving their classrooms for more lucrative employment. Even the one or two well-endowed schools who are able to top-up the government salaries are losing people.

Both primary and secondary institutions are affected, spreading the damage right across the system.

I know of some schools that advertise repeatedly to fill vacancies, with no responses whatsoever. Only a disappointingly few retirees have opted to return to fill gaps, and they are not likely to stay for long.

There are credible estimates that the numbers of our best teachers drifting/rushing from our classrooms during 2019 amounted to several hundred. They are irreplaceable and the ripple effect of their going will affect us for generations.

The consequences which are staring at all but the purposely blind, are classes without teachers or teachers without appropriate qualifications filling in when there are no alternatives. This time, Mr Owen Speid is right: the recruiters are speeding up and the profession is being decimated as the Government’s response to remedy the catastrophe has been like Mr Donald Trump’s reaction to Puerto Rico’s disasters.

With this attrition of talent, the quality of instruction is bound to decline precisely at a time when the nation needs higher, not lower, levels of teaching and learning. My deepest fear is that in order to save face, the pressure will be on to reduce examination standards.

Some allege this is happening already. What grasp of a subject does a grade-three pass at the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate exam really certify? How much longer are we going to normalise the semi-literacy of too many university matriculants?

Given the grief of many employers of tertiary graduates, it is surprising that the issue of educational quality does not figure more prominently in their recipes for stimulating productivity and growth in 2020.

What is your take on this problem, Private Sector Ogranisation of Jamaica? Or Economic Programme Oversight Committee? The only reason I am not calling out the Growth Council is because there is no evidence that it is still alive.

STEM ACADEMIES

So it is not surprising that the prime minister proposes that the STEM academies will operate under a different set of rules from the rest of schools. I have no idea how that is going to happen while avoiding rebellion among the teaching profession. What is certainly true is that stimulating excellence in school outcomes cannot be achieved under the present arrangements with teachers.

To staunch the drift and to improve results will require that teachers be paid a great deal more and be held far more accountable. Correcting the straightjacket of public-service-wide bargaining and an intentionally rigid Education Code should be the first priority of the nation’s post-IMF flexibility.

The Government’s present education policy is a recipe for perverse results. Parents are not obliged to contribute, the State provides too little, poverty increases, quality decreases, and only those whose families can pay for the summer school and extra lessons from grade-one through to the Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Examination levels have the best chance of succeeding.

‘Is so it set’ because the good teachers who resist the drift, I mean rush, have little option but to generate tax-free income for teaching much the same lessons which ought to have been transmitted in the classroom. In effect, what parents don’t pay up front, you pay all through the system so as to get adequate value. What sense does that make?

No wonder a previous minister of education could credibly estimate the cost of remedial education annually to be in the region of $20 billion. Much of that is sheer waste, and the money should be invested by parents and the State in doing it right the first time.

CANNOT WAIT

Look here, this matter is so serious that it cannot wait for another two years when the next bargaining cycle comes around. Teachers need to be taken out of the greater public cohort and a new discourse engaged immediately, offering them more money overall and opening the prospect of differentiated pay scales in cases of scarce talent, incentives for excellence and special duties.

All this must be linked with stricter standards of accountability, allowing, among other things, for reasonable transfers between schools in each region, the rationalisation of leave and the simplification of disciplinary proceedings in a revision of the code of 1980.

It cannot be that the Cabinet does not appreciate the nation’s predicament. Their own children are being affected. Yes, even those at Campion and the other highly sought-after church schools. Are they either afraid or impotent to respond adequately?

I appeal to them. For until they do, our children’s and the nation’s development prospects will continue to be compromised irrevocably as the drift from the classroom continues.

Ronald Thwaites is member of parliament for Kingston Central. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com