Thu | Dec 3, 2020

Ronald Thwaites | Saving the early childhood sector

Published:Monday | November 16, 2020 | 12:06 AM

I am pleading with Government to accelerate the transition of basic schools to infant schools. When I had the privilege to serve, a process began which changed several scores of struggling institutions into formal association with primary schools. This transition means that the State takes on the responsibility for paying early childhood teachers and, hopefully, providing decent breakfast and lunch for all children who are in need. The pace of this change needs to quicken, especially since COVID-19 has dealt a death blow to hundreds of early childhood centres.

The basic school with which I interacted this week is a highly sought-after urban, tangentially church-related institution which accommodates about 150 little people. There are 12 teachers, five of whom receive the unjust, miserable state subsidy of about $30,000 net each month. The rest are hardly better paid, particularly the many with only HEART Level 1 or 2 qualifications. There is only one trained teacher. Qualified persons never stay long there because they can’t. The pay can’t stretch.

Let us agree that if we want to get anywhere as a country, we need our best and most compassionate teachers in early childhood schools, not the least qualified and poorest paid.

At this stage of life when brains are being built, humane values, appropriate behaviour traits and purposeful personalities developed, the nation needs the best teachers to impart socialisation and early learning. Instead, close to half of the teachers in the almost 3,000 early childhood centres have grossly inadequate training. So our teaching and learning priorities are upside down.

This school reports excellent relations with parents. This tremendous advantage is not replicated across the system although it is the hallmark of every good school. Jamaican society – all of us – have so far failed to accept that weak, brittle family relationships have an inevitable negative effect on educational outcomes. So the basic or infant school has to become the place where devoted parenting is taught too. If not, where else?

The curriculum prescribed by the Early Childhood Commission needs revision to more comprehensively address the social deficiencies of children’s home and community environments. Language skills, learning to use a toilet, adopting the rhythm of punctuality, eating cycles and interpersonal relations need to be the primary preoccupation of the early childhood day. Teach them how to pray and to play.

This school charges $25,000 as a yearly fee. In addition, they tax parents $700 per week for lunch and operate a canteen in order to make ends meet. Add in the incessant begging and ask yourself whether this is a sustainable way to finance this vital sector of the school system.

Predictably, only about half of the students have even sporadic access to virtual learning since March. Without more, they are all being set back for life.

The inattention of many churches and others who sponsor basic schools is scandalous. Unless congregants begin again to treat their schools as critical parts of their mission, our children will grow without the anchor of Christian or other religious values. Instead of ceding responsibility for school quality to government, churches must take the initiative to improve school texture.

How refreshing then is the news this week of the wonderful effort at Godfrey Stewart High in Savanna-la-Mar, where alumni are farming on school lands so as to provide breakfast and other nutrition for the more than half of the school population who need help. They aim to go further, the principal tells me, by providing breakfast for everybody. It is already causing better attendance and punctuality and is one foundation of improved academic results.

Perhaps best of all it is a team from the local Baptist Church which volunteers to prepare the food each day. What an epiphany of change would take place if others would follow likewise!

REMEMBERING FR ERNLE

Canon Ernle Gordon who died last week was one priest who understood that faith had to take him into the marketplace of life. He shared with me the conviction that national budgeting was a sacred exercise because it determines the use of God’s resources for the benefit of the common good. His understanding of Jesus’ mission led him to preach the conversion of the human heart through the strengthening force of the church community, all directed towards engagement in all the struggles, defeats, victories and aspirations of humanity.

Of necessity, this praxis of faith and action took him into the realm of progressive politics. He was an inveterate letter writer and a regular caller on Public Eye. With his endearing stammer and genial chuckle, his unpretentious persona and humble life, he promoted what he believed the worthwhile life to be – an encounter with God reconciling his Jamaican world in Christ.

I’m sure he had many faults and this is not to try to canonise him. It is to remember a good man, a conscious pastor and scholar and one who kept faith with God’s promise for Jamaica.

Rev Ronald G. Thwaites is an attorney-at-law. Send feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.