Whither free education?
The Government has declared free education for all up to the secondary level. Based on this declaration, government-funded schools are given school fees annually for each child by the Ministry of Education. This year, the funds from the ministry should have been disbursed three times in the year. Schools expected to receive the third disbursement at the beginning of the second term. This has not happened.
The Ministry of Education has since sent out communication to the effect that because of financial constraints that the Government is experiencing, the ministry's payment to the schools has been delayed. There is no indication as to when the schools will receive these funds.
This is having a serious impact on schools that depend solely on the funds from the ministry to operate their institutions. There are schools that now have to send their utility bills to the Ministry of Education to be paid. All of this is happening in the context of the Government advising parents that the auxiliary fees that schools charge to assist in meeting the expenses of running the institutions are not compulsory. Since this announcement, school administrators have seen a decline in the number of parents who are paying auxiliary fees.
Contrary to the perception that this is because of the inability of parents to pay, some of the parents who do not pay are non-compliant simply because they have declared that it is "free education" time now. On the other hand, there are parents who are domestic workers and labourers who come in to make arrangements with the school to pay even $1,000 a week until the fee is paid up. These parents take pride in the fact that they can contribute to their children's education. They have not bought into the 'freeness mentality' which is so prevalent in our nation.
Some questions therefore arise: Can the country, in its present financial crisis, afford to fund 'free education' for all? Can the country afford to pay for the education of the children of parents who can afford to pay school fees? What quality education will be delivered to the students of schools where the funds are not forthcoming in a timely manner from the Ministry of Education and which do not have supplementary funds from auxiliary fees? How can the minister of education be requiring improved education output with reduced resources?
I believe that the Government needs to acknowledge that it is not able to continue to fund free education up to the secondary level. It needs to return to the cost-sharing arrangement which was previously in place in the secondary schools. Under this arrangement, parents who needed financial assistance from the ministry would apply for it. These applicants would be interviewed by the school's guidance counsellors and their application forwarded to the Ministry of Education. The approved assistance would be forwarded to the school. This arrangement seems to be more suitable to our present financial crisis. Let those parents who can afford to pay, do so.
The International Handbook on the Economics of Education
, Jamaica was cited as one of the countries in the World Education Indicators survey that compared to countries such as Greece and France spent a significant per cent of its gross domestic product on education. Whereas in 1999, Jamaica spent 7.5 per cent, Greece spent 2.6 per cent and France 4.4 per cent. I think we have to look again at the practicality of the 'free education' policy in light of our current realities.
As it now stands, a number of schools have to be relying on the auxiliary fees paid by parents to keep the schools functioning. Yet, our prime minister called principals who require parents to pay additional fees, "extortionists". This was a most unfortunate position for him to have taken and it will forever be etched into the minds of the hard-working principals who are required not only to be instructional leaders, but finance solicitors of their schools.
With the cost of utilities increasing steadily, schools are now required to pay, for example, an astronomical amount of money for electricity. Another prohibitive cost is that of security. The Ministry of Education has issued a Safety and Security Policy document to the schools but there are no resources accompanying the document to implement the policy. It is the auxiliary fees once again that have to be used to cover much of the security costs.
The Ministry of Education is encouraging the increased use of technology in the schools. The E-Learning Project supplies the schools with equipment, yet there is no technical support provided to maintain the system. It is the auxiliary fees that are used to provide the needed technical support.
The global current trend in secondary education is to produce students who are not only academically educated but students who are rounded by participating in co-curricular activities. These activities such as sports, service clubs, academic and performing arts clubs are not financed by the Ministry of Education but are supported by the auxiliary fees paid by the parents. Yet, when students who do not pay these fees are told that they cannot participate in these activities, there are accusations of unfairness and exclusion. We need to become realistic with regard to the true cost of educating the Jamaican child at the secondary level. This assessment needs to include the cost of producing the rounded student so many parents and employers want to see.
The Government produces policies and edicts without the supporting resources. This approach might result in political mileage but it does not result in an improved education system. We need to be realistic. We need to acknowledge that, as a nation, we are not at the place to implement 'free education'. We need to set a standard of education and allow the parents who can afford to assist in providing this education for their children to do so.
Esther Tyson is principal of Ardenne High School, St Andrew. Feedback may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.