Where are all the children gone?
The shunning of remote rural schools in preference for ones in small towns is now a major concern for stakeholders involved in education in Hanover who are quite worried about the dwindling student populations in many remote rural schools.
Marcia Allen, principal of the ABC Learning Centre in Green Island, believes some rural schools are being shunned for more urban ones, which are in some cases overpopulated, because the rural schools are being falsely labelled as underperforming.
"Most of the times, parents want the kids to go to Esher, Green Island Primary, and March Town as opposed to Cove Primary and Kendal ... . Some [families] live next door to the schools, but they still send them (the children) to Lucea Primary and to Green Island," said Allen. "We try to encourage the parents by telling them that these [rural] schools have trained teachers and students have done well from there."
During her keynote address at an event at the Maryland All-Age School last week, Dr Michelle Pinnock, who heads the Ministry of Education's Region Four, urged parents not to bypass schools within the rural areas as schools like Maryland have the potential to rival schools in the urban centres.
In July last year, Ronald Thwaites, the former minister of education, announced the closure of 18 small schools across the island, including one in Hanover. He cited population shifts, displacement of original communities, and perception of school quality, including leadership, as reasons for the unprecedented decline in their populations.
MINISTRY NOT BLAMELESS
But Allen said the education ministry should also be held liable for the exodus of students as it has not ensured that students enrol at primary schools nearest to their homes.
"They (ministry) make the rules, but they are not consistent. At one point, they said you must stay in your zone; you must stay in your community school," said Pinnock. "For example, Green Island children should not go all the way to Esher Primary because they were thinking of the travelling, the cost, and so on, but the schools are still taking them. You have children even going to Negril All-Age from up here.
"If a school is overpopulated, they may have a lot more students going off to traditional high schools, but it is not necessarily because they are doing better. It is because more students sat the exams than in the smaller primary schools," added Pinnock.
Andria Dehaney-Dinham, the principal of the Maryland All-Age School, had a slightly different take on the issue.
According to her, her school fell from a population of 135 out of a 150 capacity in 2014 to 91 at present. She blames the decline on the community being on the verge of dying.
The principal said the decline of agriculture, which was the mainstay of the community, is the main factor for the population decline as younger persons migrate to urban centres in search of job opportunities.
"Farming was one of the main economic activities in the community and it is no longer so. Persons go to work in the hotels and other places and when they go out of the community to work, they don't come back, and they take the children. But as long as there are opportunities opening up here, persons will come back," said Dehaney-Dinham.
While expressing similar concerns, Cleveland Wright, president of the Hanover Parish Development Committee, said the education ministry should engage the communities and the parents and provide the relevant educational inputs for the institutions.
"There are children from my area (Hopewell) who are even going to school in far away Esher ... . There is a general shift because they think the educational inputs in some primary schools are not up to par with others," said Wright.