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Ronald Thwaites | How serious are we about quality education?

Published:Monday | August 15, 2022 | 12:07 AM
A survey of the pay of early childhood teachers in Jamaica shows many of them taking home the minimum wage or below. Given the new standards for teacher registration, their choice is to eat or pay for upgrading.
A survey of the pay of early childhood teachers in Jamaica shows many of them taking home the minimum wage or below. Given the new standards for teacher registration, their choice is to eat or pay for upgrading.

One of the highest rated high schools in Jamaica is reporting a turnover of one-fifth of its academic staff this September, which begs the question, how serious are we about quality education? Another strong rural school is losing one-quarter of their teachers. They both expect the attrition to increase during August. Both these institutions (church-owned) offer the best fringe benefits to their teachers. They are able to do so from resources collected from parents and benefactors.

Still, like the nurses, they are leaving. One principal showed me the mediocre assessment of a junior staff member departing for the United Kingdom to a job which pays more than the Jamaican principal gets.

At a forum on Funding Quality Education last Tuesday at St Michael’s College, put on by the churches and trusts who own and partner schools with the State, Minister Williams was unaware of the extent of staff attrition and hopes that new graduates from the teachers’ colleges will fill any gap. That is unlikely and even were it possible, quality, already low, will have been further compromised.

The United States is short of 300,000 teachers for September. New York alone is looking 9,300 nurses right now. The migration will not stop until teachers (and nurses) earn a living wage, are shown a path of upward mobility and are held accountable for their tasks.

To make all this possible; to begin to recruit and retain the best talent in the profession, requires a revolutionary approach to national priorities, to promote a culture where learning and training (not entertainment and consumerism) become once again the primary consideration for both private and public expenditure. Where is that even starting?

MINIMUM WAGE

A survey of the pay of early childhood teachers in Jamaica shows many of them taking home the minimum wage or below. Given the new standards for teacher registration, their choice is to eat or pay for upgrading. The upcoming budget has to provide for subsidised (not free) training, a doubling of salary and a strong bond to ensure payback service for a negotiated period. This should be the main item on the agenda for the upcoming JTA conference.

The country needs a clear and immediate statement from the Prime Minister under whose ministry the lucrative HEART/NSTA Trust falls, as to the virement of a substantial portion of those funds to the early childhood sector as recommended by the Patterson Commission.

The teachers’ colleges can be tasked to offer a revised curriculum for upskilling all early childhood teachers with a very heavy emphasis on proper habit and behavioural standards and the inculcation of civic values. Given our COVID-time competencies, the instruction can be delivered largely virtually.

This is what the UWI faculty of education should be tasked and funded to superintend rather than them being deathly silent at the recommendation that their money be shared with the pre-primary education sector.

The reopening of school is three weeks away. By then, the Patterson Report will have been with Government for one whole year. With what action? We have had a grand Emancipendence holiday. So now, what about the serious stuff of reforming what is really important – the uplifting of all our people?

FINANCING GAP UNSUSTAINABLE

The financing gap at the high school level is unsustainable. The principal of one 1,700 student high school says his school does not have even one working computer for students to use. The $17,000 a year given to cover all costs beyond teachers’ salaries and basic maintenance is short by an average of $50,000 per student if there is to be real improvement in quality. If the Government cannot provide this, where is it to come from other than from parental contributions?

This requires $250 per day for the 190 days of teaching and learning for an academic year or about $135 per day for the calendar year. Minister Williams is correct that this is an impossible amount for the unemployed, single mother of many children in East St Andrew.

The State, the school and communities must find the money for the many thousands who are in a similar position. That is possible if we all accept the value proposition of great education. If we persist in ignoring the absolute need to make up for the deficit, don’t look for any better outcomes than what you see in front of you.

As Dr David McBean, Donovan Mayne and Livern Wright pointed out at Tuesday’s forum, there are many thousands of parents and family members who do not prioritise education spending because they have been told that Government is supporting the process sufficiently for them not to have to pay. Even diaspora contributions and political gimmicky go to buy branded school bags or branded sneakers rather than help with auxiliary fees. Here lies the problem.

Real poverty is increasing across the land but parents, at all economic levels, are spending on gambling, smoking, alcohol, nails, hair, party, fast food, car and matey but baulking at the contribution desperately needed by their child’s school if quality instruction is to be assured.

The Government’s position is that schools must encourage contributions but never make them mandatory. Minister, they were never mandatory! When asked for data as to instances where students have been excluded or discriminated against because their parents did not/ could not pay, Minister Williams provided none. Any such instance should be reported to the Ministry of Education or Social Security, the parents means-tested and if they are genuinely unable, PATH must make up that parent’s contribution. Don’t ask the school to do without but still provide quality education.

The same principles apply to the funding of primary education. One school I know had to repay nearly $3 million already contributed when parents insisted that “Govament seh wi no haffi pay”. More on that and on the tertiary sector next time.

Rev Ronald G. Thwaites is an attorney-at-law. Send feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.