Mon | Mar 25, 2019

Ronald Thwaites | More on transforming education

Published:Monday | January 14, 2019 | 12:00 AM

It would have been best to have discussed this first. For then there could possibly have been full agreement about transformation going forward, and particularly about the Government's grand design of providing free access to education from conception to adulthood.

When Manley proposed free education two generations ago, the issue was access. There were simply insufficient school places at all levels for the majority of poorer Jamaicans. Michael diagnosed the gross, compelling need accurately. It has been the commendable work of his and succeeding administrations and civic partners to bring us to a point now where, happily, there is access for all.

Nor is the problem the capacity of students to contribute school fees, for no one is ever excluded from a public institution for want of contribution. Even at the tertiary level of HEART and community college education, but for a redeemable few, all who are zealous and have a sense of responsibility are accommodated.

Instead, the big challenges of this age are for quality and equity, the deficiencies about which occasion waste and reduce productivity. What will it take for this Government to concentrate on the real priorities, which are literacy, numeracy and proper socialisation?

For no matter how free everything is, everybody will not get an associate degree or its equivalent if they cannot read and write properly, calculate efficiently, and display appropriate values and attitudes towards themselves, relationships and work. Except, of course, they realise my greatest fear and dilute the quality of the offerings.

So let us do the most significant things first. Hold the applause on the universe of capped and gowned associates until we bring up grade-four literacy and numeracy to full strength for all eight-year-olds, and, if they have good manners and behaviour, watch the big picture transform.

 

NOT ENOUGH INVESTMENT

 

Despite plenty of aspiration and some commendable efforts, the nation is not investing sufficiently, spiritually or financially, in the basic years of schooling and family life.

To repeat for emphasis: Get all our children, regardless of economic situation, reading, computing and reasonably disciplined as the first ineluctable education priority. This is what both the Cubans and Singaporeans did. The money to begin this radical shift is missing in the supplementary Budget tabled last week. The March Budget has to show us a different picture.

Furthermore, concern about these issues are on the back burner of public discussion. When last have we heard a robust, conclusive discussion on human resource priorities related to education and training in Parliament? It is as if we do not wish to confront our situation and settle it instead for public relations 'on steroids'.

Just consider the billions we continue to spend on extra lessons, on remedial English and maths at colleges and universities, not even to mention the unresolved social and moral incapacities of so-called 'graduates'. Convert this wealth over time to the areas of early education.

Collaborative government towards national causes requires humble and intense prior discussion of policy. Front-page edicts and flatulent propositions won't work. They provoke scornful criticisms and denunciations which advance nothing. In economic terms, there is a wasteful output gap in education that can devour any amount of money and still yield disappointing results.

Similar reasoning applies to the very significant restriction on excessive sugar in drinks sold at school. The campaign has not had a good start because cheap alternatives are simply not in place. The details of what is acceptable are not understood by most parents, teachers and vendors. And so-so water is boring.

While we work out inexpensive, tasty and nutritious liquids made with local fruit bases, it is best if schools increase physical activity for everyone and so provide opportunities to burn off additional calories. Move assertively with Jamaica Moves. It is cheap and effective. That could start everywhere now.

 

HUGE BOOST

 

The horizon for state and private partnerships in school feeding is getting a huge boost with the offer by JP Tropical Foods Ltd of a million pounds a year of green bananas at nominal cost. The banana industry begs for revival through local linkages. Crushed, boiled green banana is as versatile as it is nutritous. Ripe fruit is filling and provides reasonable fibre. It cannot be beyond the capacity of local agro-processors to produce banana flour, pancakes, flavourful lunchtime starches and snacks without plenty of sugar or salt.

Start at the early-childhood level where food tastes are developed. And just suppose the same adventurous, nationalist approach by the Producers Group was replicated by other companies, such as those producing proteins, milk-derived products, and fruit.

The nation spends more than $40 billion to feed schoolchildren every year. Reworked to emphasise nutrition for learning, to avert obesity and to stimulate domestic agriculture, consider what this money could do for growth.

That would be real transformation!

- Ronald Thwaites is member of parliament for Kingston Central and opposition spokesman on education and training. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.