Funding education a tough task
Education has taken a huge hit from the current tough economic environment and has created a manpower crisis in the system.
Tellingly, some school administrators are now faced with the task of filling critical vacancies created by teacher migration.
The flight of specialist mathematics and science teachers in search of better pay has added another layer of distress on top of school administrators and who are already grappling with ways of applying their limited resources to achieve the best results.
Fourth Floor participants in seeking to get to the root of the country's education woes examined the funding of education.
Maxine Henry-Wilson, whose familiarity with budget allocation largely stems from her previous tenure as a minister of education, said: "The last time I heard we were at about 80 per cent of the recurring budget being set aside to pay staff, whether it is teachers or other persons who are involved in the enterprise."
The education budget for 2016 is in fact $90.5 billion for recurrent expenses and $2.6 million has been allocated for capital spending. So even though a huge chunk of its budget is set aside for salaries, the Ministry of Education cannot match the salaries being offered to its specialist teachers who are leaving in droves to take up posts overseas.
Local education think tank Educate Jamaica estimates that the Ministry of Education would have to pay a minimum monthly salary of $250,000 to keep mathematics and science teachers in local classrooms. This Winston Darby, liaison officer of the organisation, said is equivalent to what these teachers are being offered by recruiters.
An entry level trained teacher is currently paid around $90,000 monthly.
Setback for students
Darby predicted that even more teachers will exit the system which he sees as a setback for Jamaican students and having grave implications for the country's 2030 development goals.
Darby, who believes Jamaica should respond by training more teachers to fill vacancies and for the export market, is however, anxious for all stakeholders in education to come together and find solutions.
Dr Marcelyn Collins-Figueroa, noted educator, felt that in times of fiscal austerity it is easy to blame the lack of resources for the fact that children are leaving school and are not able to read.
"Something must be wrong with the brain of those children for that to be happening," reasoned Collins-Figueroa. "We must solve it and if we have to solve it by creative means, let's do it."
Collins-Figueroa offered a practical solution to the illiteracy problem which would draw on human resources. She pointed to the fact that thousands of educated children are on holidays during the months of July and August.
"Why don't we have them in the schools teaching the little ones who can't read?"
Henry-Wilson then invited a critical look at the way schools are managed. She used the example of each school having a bursar. "It's not sustainable," she declared.
"If the principal and her senior staff are to be released to do instructional leadership then they have to have support for the other things and we can't replicate them in every school. So we need to look at a collective district-type solution."
Even if the Ministry of Education were minded to favour these specialist teachers, their all-powerful union, the Jamaica Teachers' Association (JTA), has not endorsed that solution. It was revealed that other initiatives, including the rotation of principals and teachers, are being resisted by the JTA.
The question was put bluntly: What does the JTA really value?
Dr Canute Thompson, educator and leadership coach, summed up the dilemma of the JTA. He suggested that segments of the leadership want the organisation to morph into a professional body but its Constitution and its base desire that it remains a union.
He added: "How far the JTA goes in being a part of the solution in terms of teacher accountability and teacher discipline remains a challenge at this point."
Even with the intervention of international donors and foundations, Fourth Floor participants acknowledged that resources will never be enough to fill all the needs of education and urged education planners to be creative in their use of both human and financial resources.