Editorial: Sensible for tourism sector to invest in schools
Half a century ago, around two-thirds of Jamaica's population lived in rural communities. Now, more than half (54 per cent) reside in urban areas.
Take Old Harbour, on the island's south coast, for instance. Thirty-five years ago, it was a relatively sleepy place with 5,000 residents. Its present population is nearly 30,000. And there is Montego Bay on the north shore. Over the same period, the population of the resort city has jumped by 155 per cent to more than 110,000.
Put another way, Jamaica is in the midst of a demographic shift, involving not only internal migration, but also a slowdown of its population growth. Fifty years ago, the fertility rate was nearly six. These days, women, on average, have just over two children.
Among the implications of these shifts is the decline, or death, of rural communities and a demand on national planners to adjust social and other infrastructure to service the evolving environment.
The education system, having been slow to adjust, is now among the areas requiring urgent action if it is to meet the schooling needs of the island's children. Facilities, for instance, have to be in areas to which people have move, such as the towns in the north and west, where hotels are being built and people have followed in search of jobs.
The response insists on greater coordination in government, such as between, say, the planning divisions of the tourism and education ministries and, given Jamaica's straitened economic circumstances, new and creative ways to get things done. Indeed, the education ministry ought to be included in long-term planning for the tourism sector with, perhaps, hotel investors being asked to include the development of educational facilities for the children of their employees in their plans.
Apparently, this cross-communication has not been practised between the ministries, which contributes to the problem of some schools being underpopulated, while in some areas there are not enough schools - if any at all - to meet the educational demands of a growing population.
It is, in part, against this backdrop that we note, and applaud, the recent decision by the education minister, Ronald Thwaites, to close 18 schools with such low student enrolment that keeping them operational was uneconomic and wasteful.
The money saved from these closures should be channelled towards the development of other institutions to accommodate the outcomes of the demands of the demographic shifts. Even then there will be, in the short term, a deficit of school places in areas of the north coast, where they are required. In that region, schools historically have been located in the hilly areas away from the coast. In St Ann, Brown's Town alone is home to York Castle, St Hilda's and Brown's Town high schools. In contrast, the only high schools along the stretch between Ocho Rios to Montego Bay are Ocho Rios High School, Marcus Garvey High School and Spot Valley High School.
Unfortunately, international funding partners that assist the Ministry of Education are not investing in physical plants. The Ministry of Tourism, perhaps, should engage potential investors on how educational facilities to meet the needs of their employees can be incorporated in their plans. They would likely see good returns on their investment.