Ian Boyne, Contributor
HIS DETRACTORS complain that he talks too much, conflates preaching with doing and that he believes his moralist-in-chief role will save education. But they only parade their myopia, contempt for ideas and appalling lack of understanding about the role of motivation in educational development.
Ronnie Thwaites is the right man for education, which is not to say he could not do a fine job in other portfolios in the Cabinet. Ronnie brings to his work energy, intellectual breadth and sophistication and a commitment to excellence that is not surpassed by any of his Cabinet colleagues. He possesses a deep understanding of grass-roots issues and culture and relates ideas with issues at the base in an arresting way.
Education needs a motivator, a communicator, someone who can speak the language of the people and interact with them meaningfully. But Ronnie Thwaites as education minister is not just style without substance, talk without action, and words without work. Responding to the need for a higher quality of instruction in schools and for our students to be exposed to the best pedagogy, the education minister has partnered with two private entities to begin a pilot programme to start broadcasting from January live and on-demand educational content to 110 schools. And between next year and 2015, some 600 schools are expected to benefit from this use of information and communications technology to impact our underperforming education system.
Jamaica's education system will not experience the kind of transformation which it needs - and needs urgently- without more of our students, and not just those in elite schools, being exposed to master teachers.We have to find a way to get the best to all our students if we are to aim for more educational access. Ronnie Thwaites has worked concretely to find that way. He has not only been preaching - critical as that is.
This year, 8,000 teachers from the early childhood, primary and secondary levels received professional development training. We can't fix education in Jamaica without increased teacher training and professional development. Incidentally, I am not putting forward the view that things have only started moving in education since Thwaites assumed office. I think former Education Minister Andrew Holness launched a number of worthwhile initiatives and made his own important contribution to educational development.
Thwaites had said early that he was going to be following the fine programmes begun by his predecessor and to carry forward initiatives which had been incomplete. Thwaites' work, for example, in advancing the legislation for the Jamaica Teaching Council has been commendable. What is especially noteworthy is the cooperation he has brokered and the trust generated with the oft-defensive and recalcitrant Jamaica Teachers Association. Thwaites has managed to get them to buy into some critical points regarding the regulation of the teaching profession, which a number of teachers had been apprehensive about. By March next year the Jamaica Teaching Council Bill is expected to be presented to Cabinet. I hope Thwaites will push it to be adopted by May of the new parliamentary year. There can be no unnecessary delay on this one.
REVISION SET FOR 2013
Also, the long-overdue revision of the Education Code must be completed post-haste. It should not only be "expected that this will be done in the new financial year, as the ministry says," but that it will be done very early in the year.
This year the National College for Educational Leadership commenced its first Effective Principal Training for over 90 principals, with the next training set for the first quarter of next year. Principal training is crucial and in his piece, "Give Mandate to Master Principals" in The Gleaner on December 18, Opinion Editor Andre Wright says, "in its introspection, the Jamaican state must also weigh whether school principalships should be the exclusive thrones of teachers who've racked up much mileage in the classroom but who might not possess managerial capacity."
In an interview with the minister recently, he admitted that principals don't have to be trained at teacher training institutions, but perhaps should have business training. But we must ensure that if they presently have the post without the business training that they get that training, as the recent National Inspection Report revealed that only in three per cent of schools surveyed was leadership and management rated as "exceptionally high" and with only 36 per cent meeting the minimum standards; with 35 per cent rated unsatisfactory. Only 22 per cent was rated good. The crisis in education is significantly a crisis in educational leadership.
The Ministry of Education must set its house in order to have the National College for Educational Leadership fulfil its mandate.
Thwaites' motto is "get it right the first time". When I recently asked him how he could ever be judged a success in education when so much rests on financial resources which will remain scarce under International Monetary Fund (IMF) austerity budgets, he retorted that there is much money in the system already and what was needed first was to ensure that it is being utilised effectively and productively.
He noted that some $20 billion was now being spent on remedial education. "If we get it right the first time we can save a lot of money," was his common sense reply to me. His approach, he explained, was to get things right and hence maximise the resources already allocated to education. Education currently devours 14 per cent of the national budget and represents 6.5 per cent of GDP spending, the highest in the region outside of high-social-spending Cuba.
A major thrust of Education Minister Thwaites is to bring greater equity and inclusiveness to the education sector. Despite all the talk about how pivotal early childhood education is and the consensus between the two main political parties on this issue, shockingly only three per cent of the education budget goes toward early childhood education ówith 40 per cent going to secondary education and an equal percentage to primary education; and 17 per cent to tertiary education. Thwaites is determined to change that.
THIS YEAR'S PROGRESSION
This year he placed 200 new trained teachers in basic schools. There is a plan, in partnership with Food for the Poor, for 50 basic schools to be constructed, five of which have been completed to date and another three are to start next month. Thwaites' plan is to have at least one trained teacher in the 500 basic schools. Significantly, too - and this is a major development - 500 basic schools are currently being mapped to merge with primary schools in the 2013/2014 school year.
Thwaites' plan to deal with the marginalised in education doesn't stop there. About 30 per cent of our students have special education challenges and needs. They can't all be accommodated in special education schools and so regularly trained teachers must be competent to diagnose learning difficulties rather than stigmatise those children as "dunce". In the Thwaites education plan, all teachers will receive some form of special education training and by the next Continued from f6
year, 400 teachers will be trained in early childhood and special education.
Children of the poor who are having increasing difficulties in accessing tertiary education have been helped by increased funding to the Students Loan Bureau. In addition, Thwaites has appointed National Commercial Bank boss Patrick Hylton to chair a committee to examine innovative ways private financial institutions can provide more loan financing for higher education. That report is due in the first quarter of next year. Thwaites, a long-time progressive and champion of the poor and oppressed, worked diligently to prevent deregistration of students at tertiary institutions this year.
In addition, for those who left high school without certification - which is a large number in our grossly underperforming education system - there is to be an Alternate High School Diploma Programme where people at even the lowest levels of the educational ladder can, through the Jamaica Library Service and the Jamaica Foundation for Lifelong Learning, get a second chance.
A more concerted effort is also being made to integrate Jamaica's workforce needs with our training. Importantly, the Heart Trust/NTA is now being restructured to work with the Ministry of Education to provide vocational training from the early childhood level right up to the secondary level so that vocational training will be right alongside academic training as mainstream education. This should make a significant difference in the future.
The reintroduction of civics and the teaching of Garveyism are noteworthy achievements. I am also excited about the Respect Agenda which will be launched in schools next month. This is aimed at teaching tolerance for diversity - of all kinds - and for civility and respect for pluralistic and, indeed, democratic values. It is long overdue. There is too much bigotry, incivility and disrespect for diversity in Jamaica. Education should not only be for hands and heads, but also for hearts.
Thwaites has made a sharp connection between our debilitating cultural values of bling, crude individualism, hedonism and materialism, and decline in respect for education. He has preached the values of frugality, savings and priority-making to parents. He has talked about the importance of parenting, of parents' reading to their children and the society's valuing education.
He has seen that a society which reduces everything of value to money is one that is antithetical to educational values. Thwaites, with his long and distinguished history as a public intellectual is the right man to lead the country's educational charge. If we are to prepare generations to escape the clutches of the IMF and to prepare Jamaica for economic sovereignty, then education has to be the way.
Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com