Sun | May 22, 2022

Editorial | Funding education during COVID and beyond

Published:Monday | January 24, 2022 | 12:08 AM

When Fayval Williams updated Parliament recently on the ongoing effort to resume face-to-face classes in Jamaica’s schools, she referenced a World Bank argument that the Government needed to allocate between $2.4 billion and $3.9 billion per annum, over at least the next two years, to finance programmes to reverse the learning loss suffered by Jamaica’s students since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This (the bill) includes the cost of re-enrolment campaigns and outreach activities; providing targeted support for at-risk students; mitigating and preventing dropout; and facilitating remedial education to minimise learning loss,” the education minister said.

This newspaper has, more than once, highlighted this bit of data in the face of last year’s joint public call by the United Nations Children Education Fund and a number of Jamaican civil society groups to urgently, but safely, get students back into classrooms. Students, they pointed out, had lost a cumulative 1.3 billion class hours in the first 19 months of the pandemic.

But it was not only the fact of this loss of face time that was at issue. As Ms Williams acknowledged last year, an estimated 120,000 students – upwards of 20 per cent of the education system’s enrolment – went missing after schools were closed and the authorities attempted to take education online. Huge chunks of this group remain unaccounted for. Additionally, of those who logged on to their virtual classes, around a third attended only sporadically.

COSTLY PROBLEM TO FIX

Clearly, this is a huge and costly problem to fix in an education system that was already delivering subpar returns. At the end of primary school, 56 per cent of the students cannot, or can barely, read. Similar amounts cannot write, or extrapolate information from simple sentences. At the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate level, less than 30 per cent of students who write the exams pass five subjects, including English and mathematics, at a single sitting.

Which makes Minister Williams’ seemingly en passant reference to the need for the additional money curious and surprising, especially given that her address was the same day that the finance minister, Nigel Clarke, was updating his budget for the current fiscal year, increasing it by $28.8 billion to $893 billion.

Given Jamaica’s fiscal constraints, the island’s finance minister has a difficult task navigating competing demands, each of which, to the supplicant, is of the utmost priority. Dr Clarke’s job has been compounded by the pandemic-induced recession, from which the economy has not yet fully recovered.

In the circumstances, even if the financing requirement had been sought in the education ministry’s budget memorandum and raised in the privacy of Cabinet sessions, Ms Williams might have been expected to more forcefully advance her claim in Parliament, winning support from the Government’s backbenchers and the Opposition. It would also have been a propitious time to encore a discussion of the matter, since Dr Clarke is likely to be in the middle of fashioning his Budget for the 2022-23 fiscal year, starting in April.

Happily, though, the case for the added expenditure has also been made by the Orlando Patterson Commission on the transformation of the education system, whose report was recently made public.

They said: “ Jamaica must accept the reality of educational setbacks due to the COVID 19 pandemic and the reduced school attendance and student engagement that resulted from curfews and quarantines. Proactive one-off budget allocations over the next two years will need to be made to mitigate against these recent challenges to the educational system and aggressively seek to remedy learning loss arising from COVID. This initiative should also seek to maintain and lock in some of the technological advances in education (such as online and in-school teaching options) that arose and are now available as a result of COVID, to allow for long-term cost and efficiency benefits.”

URGES A FULL NATIONAL DEBATE

This newspaper reiterates its endorsement of those sentiments and urges a full and serious national debate on its findings, including how Jamaica allocates its education budget and seeks to extract greater efficiency there from.

Indeed, as the commissioners pointed out, Jamaica’s expenditure on education, as a proportion of its economy – over five per cent of GDP and nearly a fifth of the Government’s spending – is comparable to most of its peers, and many other countries. Yet, it gets inadequate returns on that investment.

The Patterson Commission report offers many suggestions on how Jamaica might do better in this respect. However, issues deserve keen consideration although the discourse on its findings is likely to be contentious. The commission’s analysis suggested more than a correlation between the adequacy of schools’ funding and their performance. So, the question arises of how, without undermining others, to increase/divert resources to underfunded and poorly performing schools at the primary and secondary levels.

Then there is the suggestion that the $14 billion that flows annually to the vocational training agency, HEART/NSTA Trust via a payroll tax, be diverted to the struggling pre-primary/early-childhood sector.

Said the commission: “ It is well established that both vocational training and early-childhood education are critically important parts of the overall education offering. There are, however, meaningful differences between the two. First is the obvious fact that one is an important precondition for the other. That is, students who are able to take full advantage of Jamaica’s system of vocational training will, in general, have received an effective early-childhood education. Conversely, students without the benefit of an effective early-childhood education will tend to experience disadvantages throughout the remainder of their educational experience.”