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Canute Thompson | Towards more serious policymaking

Published:Sunday | July 24, 2016 | 7:00 AM
Canute Thompson
Education Minister Ruel Reid has been dubbed the minister of clarification, worsened after having issued several modified versions of the Government's policy of school fees.
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I have a measure of personal regard for the minister of education, Senator Ruel Reid, but I, like so many educators and citizens, have a problem with his approach to policy design and implementation. One of the recent gems of our political culture is the broad consensus that had been emerging in relation to education.

Shortly after former Minister of Education Ronnie Thwaites took office in 2012, it became apparent that his intent was to take education out of the zone of being a political football. He announced in his first public meeting with staff at the Ministry of Education, and several times subsequently, that he intended to continue a number of the programmes started by his predecessor, Andrew Holness. Part of the reason Ronnie Thwaites saw the need to continue many of the programmes and policies of his predecessor is simply that those programmes and policies were the product of research and serious investigation and consultation (thanks to the work of the Task Force on Education and its seminal 2004 report).

Many educators are watching with deep pain and anxiety, the seeming undoing of much of the progress made in education in the last 10 years, and I feel a strong urge to appeal to Minister Reid, and the administration that has given him this task to execute, to step back and assess the handling of this policy.

 

UNSETTLED AND UNSETTLING POLICY

As at Monday, July 18, 2016, the minister had issued yet another iteration of the Government's policy on auxiliary fees. In addition to insisting that the policy should be called 'parental contribution policy' rather than auxiliary fee policy (which one educator, Esther Tyson, calls semantics), the ministry, in effect, gave schools the space to negotiate the fees that they would like to charge.

So far, a number of schools, including Jamaica College, where the minister served as principal before becoming minister, have been able to secure the 'right' to charge the fees they were charging prior to the so-called new policy.

It is hard the follow the 'evolution' of the policy, but if one were to attempt to trace it, the evolution would look something like this:

(1) First iteration: Fees will be abolished. The ministry will increase the grant to schools from $11,500 to $19,000. This $19,000 is to cover core functions. This would exclude extra-curricular activities.

(2) Subsequent (not sure it was the second) iteration: Parents may be asked to contribute, but they should not be forced. Schools that are having difficulty may seek further assistance from the ministry.

(3) Next iteration: Schools that wish to seek support from the ministry above and beyond the $19,000 must submit their full budgets showing every source of income and financial support.

(4) Further refinement: Schools may request contributions (aka charge fees) up to $20,000.

(5) Penultimate iteration (at the time of writing): Schools that fail to comply with the $20,000 limit risk being taken over by the minister for failing to comply with policy directives.

(6) Latest modification: Schools that wish to charge more than $20,000 may make a case to the ministry.

 

ELEMENTS OF GOOD POLICYMAKING

One of the questions that Government must ask is whether it is satisfied with the manner in which this policy, which has now been shown not to change anything (except by a name change that will hardly stick), has evolved.

In making public policy, the first step is to define the problem that is being addressed. If a problem does not exist, there is no need for a policy. This policy seems to have created a problem for a working solution, namely, auxiliary fees.

The second step is to examine, through real stakeholder consultation, how significant the problem is in the mind of stakeholders. What seems to have been woefully lacking in the design of this policy is that there was little or no public consultation.

Real consultation must be differentiated from holding public meetings to inform stakeholders about a policy. Consultation on public policy requires a series of discussions with stakeholders to get their views on whether the proposed policy is necessary and how effective it is likely to be and how best to implement. If the consultation is not focused on relevance, sensitivity to the purported problem, and collaboration in implementation, there is likely to be stakeholder resistance, mal-implementation, confusion, and several iterations - as has been the case with this policy!

If I were to advise the Government from a political perspective, I would suggest that it invest its energies in making policy that will gain traction with the populace. I would suggest a data-driven and consultative approach to using public resources and partnerships with citizens to solve real problems and not merely to fulfil political promises.

 

NEO-LIBERALISM REVISITED

To the curious observer, the 180-degree flip by the minister, from complete abolition (spoken in absolute terms) to support for parental contribution, must be probed. What was it that happened that led to the change in a matter of a few weeks? If the minister were so unequivocal that the $19,000 would suffice, what could have led him to make that sudden accommodation allowing schools a ceiling of $20,000?

I am prepared to wager that the International Monetary Fund sent a message to the Government saying that it dare not eliminate fees as the Government could not afford to maintain the education system without the contribution of parents.

Thus, I contend, for all the criticism about the former administration being slavish in its adherence to neo-liberal prescriptions, what we, in fact, had was a rational and necessary adaptation of policy to the realities of the socio-economic environment in which Jamaica operated and continues to operate.

So for all the tussle and muscle, the matter of fees at the secondary level has come back around to the inescapable reality that parents must pay something. One of the issues to which attention must now be paid is the inequity in the income of schools - and here I do not blame schools. But it is unacceptable that Jamaica College, for example, will have income of X number of students multiplied by $31,500 per student (which parents pay), plus the $19,000 that the Government will give (for a total of $50,500 per student), whereas another school will have X number of students multiplied by $7,000 (which parents will pay), plus the $19,000.

A new formula for funding secondary education should now be vigorously tackled. If not, AndrÈ Wright's April 15, 2016 article on the circus in town will become a painfully more relevant commentary.

- Dr Canute Thompson is a management consultant and lecturer in educational policy, planning, and leadership at the School of Education, UWI. He is also co-founder of the Caribbean Leadership Re-Imagination Initiative and author of three books on leadership. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and canutethompson1