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Ronald Thwaites | Get serious with education

Published:Monday | August 5, 2019 | 12:00 AM

Every child who attends a public school in Jamaica has been presented with a fee voucher to be paid before September morning or during the academic year. Up to grade six, the amount varies around $10,000, while for the higher grades, the figure can rise to upwards of $30,000. If everyone who could pay did pay, the value of these contributions would add up to close to $5 billion per annum.

Because they cannot do better, principals and school administrators will apply pressure on parents to comply. It is, however, to the credit of school management that there are no credible reports of students who are unable to pay being excluded or prejudiced in any way.

All schools need this money for general budgetary shortfalls, for utilities and supplies, and particularly for the co-curricular, enrichment and welfare programmes that add quality to every school experience. If schools do not get sufficient funds for these purposes, the quality of school life is demeaned and both the social and academic outcomes show it.

Three years ago, the Government purported to abolish these auxiliary fees and increased the per-capita grant to high schools in an effort to compensate. There is supposed to be more money for every primary-grade student this year.

Allocations insufficient

These higher allocations are commendable, but insufficient. The cost of educational inputs has increased because of inflation and the depreciating dollar, and every school has had to find ingenious means of getting around the unworkable ministry directive.

Since roughly half of the school population is in receipt of social security assistance, such as it is, and many more need to be on PATH, the level of contributions is never going to be adequate to balance school budgets. Recently, on these pages, two principals, Grace Baston of Campion and Mark Malabver of Yallahs High, and also a teacher, Maria Mutijo, have written of the predicament their schools suffer from inadequate or delayed payments and unfulfilled promises.

This element of the education crisis was aggravated last year when, in the public-service wage settlement, exemption was granted from the very contributions that had previously been abolished. Such absurdity led to many schools having to refund fees which had already been paid by willing parents. It has not been made up to them. Unless remedied, the deficit will recur this academic year.

Given healthy budget surpluses, this situation is unacceptable and indicative of seriously misplaced government priorities. To deliver a well-educated, trained and socially adjusted workforce, public educational institutions need to be properly resourced at all levels. A flat 2019-2020 budget just does not cut it.As Peter Bunting quipped recently, our two political parties are outdoing themselves in promising freeness in education. Until much more money is provided, that is an illusion and contributes to the cruelty of apartheid in the school system.

As yet, there has been no reliable costing for delivering the quality education at each level on which the nation’s future depends. We fool ourselves in a variety of ways. First, that the State has the resources and the will to pay for everyone’s schooling, and second, that parental and other contributions are optional extras rather than essential ingredients.

With little more than a month to go before schools reopen, it is overdue for a frank reappraisal of policy in relation to funding education this year. Parents and guardians must be reappraised of the need to honour their child’s voucher as much as they are able. Also, the contribution for PATH students, the genuinely needy, must be doubled in the first Supplementary Estimates. Equally, all schools must respond to higher standards of accountability and targets for performance. It will mean swallowing some of the spit of false pride for the administration to reverse itself regarding shared cost. The prospect of higher-quality outcomes in the short run requires no less.

Ronald Thwaites is opposition spokesman on education and training and member of parliament for Kingston Central. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.