Editorial | Rationalising schools
There are many matters in Jamaica’s crisis-riddled education system that require urgent remedial action. But just as important as any that commands the public’s attention is the need to end the frittering away of taxpayers’ money on maintaining schools that were built for hundreds, but now only have a handful of students.
The problem is especially acute at the primary level, where 72 per cent, 550 of 759, operate below their capacity, including 28 per cent whose enrolments are less than half the students they were designed to accommodate. The calculations include institutions designated as all-age and junior high schools.
At the secondary level, nearly a third (31 per cent) of the schools operate below capacity.
We are aware of these figures not because of deliberate, transparent action by the education ministry. They are revealed in a data trove the ministry presented to Parliament’s Public Administration and Appropriations Committee (PAAC) in response to a wide range of policy questions posed to the ministry.
The document is an example of what is possible by the legislature when serious matters do not become overly politicised. And it provides a basis for considered questioning of the education minister, Fayval Williams, at hearings of the committee.
Now that the PAAC is on this track, it should consider extending its deliberations on the ministry’s responses to its specific questions to hearings on the broader education sector, including the recommendations contained in the Orlando Patterson Commission report for transforming Jamaica’s education system. For, as this newspaper has complained often, there is yet to be any deep and engaged public debate of the Patterson findings, not discounting the initial efforts of the Education Transformation and Oversight Committee (ETOC), which will police the implementation of its recommendations.
There are clear intersections between the matters covered by the Patterson Commission and the questions being explored by the PAAC. In any event, given that government agencies are already spending money on ETOC and the overall reforms effort, the Patterson Commission’s findings are legitimately within the remit of the PAAC for review and oversight.
With respect to schools that operate either below or above their capacity, we appreciate that this is not unique. Demographic changes, including shifts in communities, impact school populations. Indeed, using the Planning Institute of Jamaica (PIOJ) data on the island’s declining population growth over the past decade, the education ministry estimated that by 2025-26, there will be a 10-per-cent decline in the early childhood to high school cohort for which it will have to cater, compared to the current numbers.
But these are not sudden developments. The trends have been clear for years, and the education ministry has had to face the situation before. In 2015, for instance, the then education minister, Ronald Thwaites, announced that 18 primary schools would be closed that year.
“In some communities where the schools are located,” Mr Thwaites said at the time, “the population has been declining, with a small number of youth and many older persons as residents.” Schools built for hundreds had as few as 16 students. The teacher-to-student ratio in some of those schools was as low as 1:7, but their education outcomes were no better than other institutions, and in some cases worse.
On the face of it, the problem, apparently, has grown starker. According to the education ministry’s statistics, 112 primary schools (15 per cent) have enrolment of between 10 and 24 per cent of capacity. Another 225 (30 per cent) were between 25 per cent and half of capacity, while at 213 (28 per cent) enrolments were below 50 per cent.
Three per cent of high schools (five) had enrolment of less than half of their capacity; 16 per cent (28) were between 10 and 24 per cent under capacity; and 12 per cent (21) had between 24 per cent and 49 per cent of the amount of students they were built to accommodate.
Regarding overcrowding, that problem affected a fifth (25.5 per cent) of primary schools and 40 per cent of secondary institutions.
It is the question of overcrowding that the ministry addressed in responding to the PAAC’s question about its plans for addressing the capacity issue. According to the ministry, there is a plan to build 57 primary and high schools, six STEM academies, and a specialised performing arts institution.
What, however, was not addressed, but deserves a serious discussion, is the rationalisation of existing institutions. Indeed, the education ministry should provide geographic maps of under-and over-subscribed institutions, demographic profiles of the communities they serve, their staff, education outcomes, the cost of their operation, and institutions to which their enrolled students might be transferred. That demographic work is easily handled by the Mona GeoInformatics Institute, which the ministry has in the past employed for similar types of analyses.
Maintaining schools with too few students and are without the ability to benefit from scale, is to inefficiently use taxpayers’ money. Purposeful discussions, supported by good analysis, will show how to effectively reallocate those resources, including transferring teachers to where they can be best utilised. The latter matter again underlines the need to change the legislation covering where and how teachers are employed (by individual schools rather than the central ministry), which limits the ability to transfer them. This issue is also addressed by the Patterson Report.