Fri | Aug 12, 2022

Present but absent

Ministry’s focus on attendance figures does not paint true picture of crisis, say educators

Published:Sunday | May 2, 2021 | 12:23 AMTameka Gordon - Senior Staff Reporter
Fayval Williams.
Fayval Williams.

Despite Education Minister Fayval Williams touting the development of an application being developed to monitor student attendance in real time, educators in the system believe the ministry is out of touch with the realities on the ground. During a...

Despite Education Minister Fayval Williams touting the development of an application being developed to monitor student attendance in real time, educators in the system believe the ministry is out of touch with the realities on the ground.

During a post-sectoral debate press conference last Thursday, Williams made the disclosure, indicating that current national statistics show 74 per cent consistent school attendance among children.

“Absenteeism from school is an early warning signal and that is why we are going to develop the attendance app, so that we have reliable and also timely information about absenteeism, so we can intervene and find out what are the issues and we can find that out early,” she said, pointing out that the four main reasons for absenteeism are illness, financial constraints, unauthorised closure of school, and rain.

Other factors, she cited, are dropouts, expulsion and pregnancy among girls.

“All those things we have to take on. It can’t be that a student getting expelled for whatever reason, that is the end of the line for his or her education. The same for pregnancy. These are tough situations, but we have to bring solutions to them if we want to see attendance numbers increase and if we want to see our children get an education,” the minister said.

But teachers in the field have knocked the ministry’s focus on attendance, telling The Sunday Gleaner that COVID-19’s impact on the quality of teaching and learning may be far more devastating than officials realise.

The ministry’s reliance on daily attendance figures as a gauge of teaching and learning ignores the lack of quality engagement of students and is not a true representation of what is happening at the grassroots level, educators say, pointing to myriad issues exacerbated by the pandemic.

“The numbers they are getting at the ministry are not a true reflection and until they come to that realisation they will not stop feeling satisfied, and they won’t stop saying, ‘We are getting there’,” one Clarendon-based grade coordinator, who did not wish to be identified, told The Sunday Gleaner.

“We are not getting there!” the 30-year veteran educator charged.

Painting A NEGATIVE PICTURE

“The ministry does not want to paint a negative picture and it seems they don’t want to believe us. When they speak about what’s happening in our schools, I have to wonder which Jamaica they are referring to,” the educator said.

Speaking of the ministry’s intervention to provide learning kits for students, the grade coordinator said take-up from students at her institution has been quite poor.

“Where we use to print 350 learning kits, we are now printing 50, and best believe 50 students will not come to collect them. We realise we are wasting paper and it is sad. What will happen to their future? How will they matriculate to college?” she pondered.

She says that from her discussions with colleagues in the field, schools deemed to be the poorer performing ones have seen a significant dip in the quality engagement of students as the students either do not avail themselves for classes or are hamstrung by a lack of resources.

“The ministry needs to talk to teachers in these schools to find out what is really going on. Form teachers write weekly reports and these are just a repeat of the very same things: students are not coming to classes,” she said.

“They (students) mark their names in the WhatsApp groups that are set up by the form teachers, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are going to classes,” she said, reasoning that the data package many students have is insufficient to stream classes.

“They just have data to send messages. In cases where the phone belongs to a parent, they will mark their names in the mornings before the parent leaves for work and it seems after break time, the parents message their names back into the group for the afternoon attendance,” she said.

“The ministry feels good about the daily numbers that they are getting, but it is not a true reflection of what the teachers are experiencing on a day-to-day basis. It doesn’t mean that the students are engaged in teaching and learning,” the grade coordinator lamented.

“I have 48 students in one class and only one is presently online. Where are the rest of them?” she lamented of her class two Fridays ago as she spoke with The Sunday Gleaner.

“You will see them in the WhatsApp group texting each other, but they are not in class because some of them either don’t have the data or a device while some of them just don’t care,” she said.

LACK OF INTERNET ACCESS

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has displaced many students, thwarting their educational prospects with many falling between the cracks due to lack of access to the Internet or electronic devices to facilitate their attendance to classes.

The situation rings true for former president of the Jamaica Association of Principals and Vice-Principals and Principal of Old Harbour High, Lynton Weir.

“My data is broken down according to grades, with 56 per cent attendance for my grade sevens at the start of COVID-19. But as we moved along, we recognised that the numbers started to decrease in every grade,” Weir said.

He pointed out that there was, however, an increase in attendance to examinations as students tend to log into classes for exams but not for regular instruction.

For Linvern Wright, president of the Jamaica Association of Principals of Secondary Schools and principal of the William Knibb Memorial High, information from his teachers reveals the same circumstances.

The ministry does not collect data on the attendance of students to individual classes, Wright explained.

“So what happens is that many of them who are not under serious supervision at home get to skip classes. We don’t have a problem with the middle-class families, who are able to provide the parental supervision, but the ones who are struggling to read and where the parents are struggling to read, God help them!” Wright said.

Interestingly, Wright said that his administrators have also found that some students are lying about not having access to gadgets to allow them to join classes, a point which underscores Weir’s view of the lax attitude of some students towards their studies.

The association has also had to call out a few delinquent teachers for the practice as well.

“This distance learning impedes proper accountability. What we give in terms of accountability in many of our schools is not reliable and it is not because of incompetence, but it is due instead to the modality that is being used,” said Wright.

tameka.gordon@gleanerjm.com