Peter Espeut | Taking over church schools
For many, the takeover of all church and private schools by the government of Guyana in 1976 is still fresh in our minds. Prior to 1976, the churches ran the best schools in the country, compared to government-owned schools which were of lower quality. Church schools hired their own staff, and largely designed their own curriculum.
In 1976, the autocratic government of Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham amended the constitution of Guyana to enshrine free education for all citizens from nursery to university. To facilitate this, all schools were nationalised (including those owned by the Seventh-Day Adventist Church which were private), and the government centrally hired all teachers. Principals of what were considered elite high schools were transferred to low-performing schools with a view to improving educational performance. Compulsory education was enforced.
Schools quickly became overcrowded, and teachers who resisted government efforts to make them teach loyalty to the government and its socialist objectives were fired. Truancy and illiteracy increased.
Guyana’s economic troubles in the 1980s, combined with the huge cost of financing free public education, led to underfunding of the schools. The quality of education declined even further. School plants were neglected, educational materials became scarce or non-existent, and equipment deteriorated. Teachers’ salaries were poor, and as supply budgets dwindled, so did the number of trained teachers, many of whom sought positions out of the country to escape political oppression and job insecurity.
Decades later, the Guyana government invited the church back into education, although they did not restore the expropriated schools.
MEMORY OF GUYANA
As the Jamaican government seeks to revise the Education Act (1965) and Regulations (1980) the memory of Guyana 1976 is forced into the forefront of my mind. Jamaican schools owned and operated by churches and trusts perform far better than government schools in terms of educational outcomes, largely because they have better management, and are driven by an ethos which promotes quality human formation.
When in the middle of the last century the government wished to expand the availability of education, they turned to the churches to establish partnerships: the church would be given some autonomy to operate their schools embodying their ethos, and the government would provide funding. It was a mutually respectful relationship, and a mutually beneficial one.
All schools in Jamaica are managed by individual boards nominated by the owners and appointed by the minister of education; the owners operate their schools through the boards which they control by virtue of the fact that they nominate the majority of the members. The board hires all the staff, and the principal reports to the board. The present legal framework establishes an effective balance between the power of the government and the church in managing church schools, at the same time giving the government total control over the schools they own.
The foundation of the high quality of church schools is that the churches nominate board members with management ability, while government boards consist of persons nominated because of their political loyalty. Under this system, the government has been unable to ensure that the schools it operates deliver high quality, while the opposite is true of churches and trusts. There is no doubt that Jamaica’s educational system is in need of a far-reaching overhaul, and so revision of the Education Act (1965) and Regulations (1980) is essential.
As is their habit, the government engaged a consultant to examine the situation, consult widely with stakeholders, and to make recommendations. The report is now in, and I have obtained a copy. Remarkably, the consultant has determined that the root problem of Jamaica’s underperforming education system is that the minister of education does not have enough power and control over schools. Give the minister more power, and educational performance will improve!
The source of the problem (according to the consultant) is that school boards have too much autonomy.
“Boards can be said to operate in a space of ‘defined autonomy’, that is, autonomy within the regulatory framework established by the minister and monitored by MoEY staff.”
This “defined autonomy” of school boards is an essential part of the balancing act negotiated by the churches and trusts at the time when grant-in-aid was introduced. Since the churches and trusts are predominant on the boards of the schools they own, the “defined autonomy” allows them to produce excellence in educational outcomes, and is to their advantage. The consultant hired by the government sees this “defined autonomy” as undesirable, since it diminishes the power of the minister, which is considerable, but not absolute.
“The minister’s direct control and supervision of public educational institutions is dispersed via the agency relationship with school boards.”
The ministry’s consultant proposes that this defect in the system be remedied by reducing the “defined autonomy” of school boards, thereby concentrating more power in the hands of the minister, and diminishing much of the control churches and trusts have over the schools they own.
“Further to which, there is no central employing authority for school staff.”
This provision whereby school owners through their boards directly hire their teachers is part of the “defined autonomy” which is an essential part of the balancing act negotiated by the churches and trusts at the time when grant-in-aid was introduced. This provision does limit the power of the minister, which was the intention. Should the ministry directly employ the teachers in church schools, this would give the ministry power to move teachers in church schools elsewhere (including principals), and to move in teachers and principals; thereby diminishing the control churches and trusts have over the quality of management at the schools they own.
Over time, it has become clear that having teachers directly hired by boards does carry some disadvantages for the Ministry of Education. It should be possible to remedy these without disturbing the delicate balance of power between the churches and the government; but the consultant recommends upsetting the balance. The government will effectively take over the management of the operations of church and trust schools.
Shades of Guyana!
The track record of the government indicates that it is unable to manage its own schools effectively; what measure of perfection can it offer to church and trust schools which are better run?
The problem is not church and trust schools, but government schools. Maybe the church can help! The government should seek to fix its own schools rather than to legislate more power over church and trust schools, which can only diminish them, and Jamaican education in the process.
Peter Espeut is a sociologist and development scientist. Send feedback to email@example.com