Tue | Nov 24, 2020

Editorial | Start national consultation on education

Published:Thursday | October 29, 2020 | 12:15 AM

ALTHOUGH THERE has been a lot of talk about education recently, little has been heard about how the commission, announced by Prime Minister Andrew Holness, in July, and headed by renowned Jamaican sociologist Professor Orlando Patterson, is proceeding with its work. Which, perhaps, is to be expected.

For Professor Patterson’s group of people – charged with reviewing and framing an education system worthy of the 21st century – is probably poring over mountains of policy documents, analysing reams of data, and talking to other people about the future of the international economy, global trends in education, and what will be required for Jamaica to be competitive in the emerging global order. They will also, at some point, engage education stakeholder groups, such as employers and teachers.

That is pretty much how the previous task force on education, in 2004, chaired by the then University of Technology (UTech) president, Dr Rae Davis, went about its work. Dr Davis’ report called for an annual increase of J$22 billion for a decade, to achieve its targeted outcomes. That level of increase was not met, especially when inflation is taken into account.

NEW CONVERSATION NEEDED

While we agree that Professor Patterson’s commission should be left to get on with its job, including sorting out big policy questions, this newspaper, nonetheless, believes that there is a need for another kind of conversation on education – a national consultation, if you will. Urgently!

For several months, since the March onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in Jamaica, the island’s education system has been in turmoil. Schools, as part of a broader effort to contain the spread of the disease, were sent on extended recess, which, despite tremulous efforts at online teaching, eventually merged into the summer holidays, broken only for regional matriculation exams.

This month’s delayed start of the new school year, primarily via online and other remote teaching platforms, has further highlighted Jamaica’s digital divide. Notwithstanding the Government’s effort to deliver 40,000 tablet computers to beneficiaries of its Programme of Advancement Through Health and Education (PATH) welfare programme, and its intention to help another 36,000 non-PATH recipients acquire tablets, a large number of students are not being engaged. In some schools, on any given day, as much as 50 per cent of students may not show up for classes because they do not have computers or smartphones, or have no access to the Internet to make the connection.

Mostly, these are underperforming students who live in vulnerable communities, have thin educational and social support, and are in need of special help to fully access and benefit from the educational offerings. Many of them, too, whose family circumstances mean limited supervision during at-home learning, would benefit from live, in-class teaching.

GENUINE CONCERNS

There are genuine concerns, especially among teachers and parents, about the risks of a return to classroom teaching, including the possibility of schools becoming super-spreading venues for the coronavirus. The Government, however, argues that using geoinformatics analysis and other demographic data, schools, depending on where they are, can be safely reopened.

“ ... We should be able to have schools held in those areas where our surveillance shows that the number of cases are very low (and) contained, where our students don’t necessarily use public transportation, and where the schools are underpopulated,” Prime Minister Andrew Holness has said. “It is not beyond us to figure that out.”

Figuring that out may, indeed, not be difficult. Yet, it is unlikely to be a walkover convincing fearful teachers that they should chance leaving their homes, perhaps via public transportation, for their classrooms, or of making parents confident about sending their children to school.

As we have said before, this can only happen on a basis of trust, an enduring form of which is best developed by having all stakeholders at the table, where all relevant data is shared and the concerns of all sides taken into account. After that, which schools can open, and the circumstances under which that should happen, ought to be the result of a consensus between school administrations, teachers, parents and the Government, through its health ministry and other agencies critical to the process.

The beginning point, though, must be an open, respectful dialogue – a national consultation, as it were – that frankly talks through the issues. That conversation should begin NOW!