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EDITORIAL - Hoping for change from JTA

Published:Thursday | August 21, 2014 | 12:00 AM

It is tempting to celebrate the infighting in the Jamaica Teachers' Association (JTA) and to conclude that it couldn't be happening to a better lot at a better time. The assumption is that in a weakened state, the JTA may be more amenable to meaningful reform of the education system.

Except that a sustainable fix to Jamaica's education crisis won't be found in the exploitation of weaknesses. The best outcomes reside in rational discourse between stakeholders, of which teachers and their union, the JTA, are critical members.

In that regard, we hope that the JTA quickly settles the legal squabble over who was properly elected to be its leader in a year's time, and that the legal contention over this issue does not distract delegates from rationally discussing substantive issues at their annual conference, beginning today. Among the matters demanding urgent attention, and about which the teachers' union has been especially obdurate, are leave entitlement and tenure.

Nearly two years ago, Education Minister Ronald Thwaites highlighted the ridiculous arrangements relating to these, constructed in a different time for different circumstances. The Jamaican Government annually spends around J$80 billion on education, an estimated 20 per cent of which we know, upfront, will be wasted, in that valuable money will have to be spent again on remediation.

For example, 30 per cent of the children in the early-childhood sector will not be ready for primary education. At grade four, over 40 per cent of primary students don't master expected literacy and numeracy skills. At high school, over 40 per cent of the students are screened out of secondary-school exams, while of those who sit the tests, 45 per cent fail at math, and a fifth, English.

In this situation, where 73 per cent of the education budget goes to paying salaries, taxpayers so obviously fail to get an appropriate return on their education investment. Teachers, after five years of employment, and every five years thereafter, are entitled to up to four months of leave, most of which they are paid for. It costs the taxpayers nearly J$3 billion a year to pay additional teachers. Recall, too, that teachers get long summer breaks, holiday at Christmas time and other periods off during the year.

UNREASONABLE STUBBORNNESS

Yet, with unreasonable stubbornness, the JTA continues to cling to these entitlements, the country's fiscal crisis notwithstanding. It gives little way on the reform of an arrangement that teachers, although paid by the central government, are employed to specific schools, and after one year on the job, are so tenured that transfers are impossible and firings near to being so. The upshot is that there are schools that, because of demographic shifts, have few students and too many, sometimes specialist, teachers, while others, if not understaffed, have teachers in subjects for which they are not qualified. But it is near impossible to rationalise the system to match skills to areas of need.

Normally, we would hold no expectation that Doran Dixon, the recalcitrant and invective-prone former president, who returns to the post this week, would be the man to lead the change. But just maybe the internal stresses of the JTA will lead to the new territory of reflection and compromise and beyond narrow interests to the greater good. We hope.

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