Parents, teachers, students, educators, friends, once again we look forward to the start of a new school year.
For some of us it is a time of great anticipation and great expectations, for others it is the beginning of a period of struggle and sacrifice.
For me, it is the beginning of a process by which the society makes better citizens out of its people.
It is the process by which the society creates critical thinkers, productive, and creative workers, participative and law abiding citizens, and loving and responsible parents.
Tamara Francis walks with her two sons to the Roseau Primary School in Kingston. Today is the first day of the new school year.
Our current economic constraints have not deterred us, it has forced us to become more efficient, creative and smarter in the management of our policies, resources, and services.
As the largest call on the National Budget outside of the Ministry of Finance, we have a duty to the nation to ensure that we maximize the value of our education expenditure.
To this end we have started to review the business processes of the Ministry of Education to ensure greater accountability, less waste, and better service delivery.
We agree that more money needs to be spent on education, however, the first strategy in getting more resources, is using less resources to deliver more services. Education must become efficient.
It is our explicit policy goal to develop a culture of efficiency in the education bureaucracy starting from my office, through to the regional offices, to the principal’s office, to the staff room, and in to the classroom.
Students and parents on their way to school for the new school year which begins today September 6.
By implementing a new inventory management system for the National Textbook Scheme we were able to save the country approximately JA$250m.
By changing the way in which we subsidize external examinations we will save approximately JA$40m, in addition to gaining an incentive for students to maintain acceptable performance levels throughout their senior high school years.
By implementing a national registry of students, we will save on the time and resources of both parents and government, in carrying out multiple registrations for national examinations.
However, we now gain the benefit of being able to centrally track and monitor the performance of the individual student which improves the quality of decisions made in national policy and teaching strategies.
There are many reasons why a child may not develop the foundation skills in literacy by the time they are to leave primary school, however there are no excuses.
The objective of primary education is to ensure that all children of primary school age are literate and numerate and competent in the necessary cognitive skills to pursue and acquire further knowledge at the secondary level.
It should not be a selection of the brightest to compete for life chances. Primary school leaders have been guided to direct their resources to the attainment of 100% literacy of their mainstream primary cohort and we have supported them to this end.
This intensive focus on literacy should result in higher national averages and a greater number of students attaining the national average.
Students who do not attain mastery, will not sit GSAT and will be catered to at the primary level for an additional year, where they will be specially supported and prepared for transition to a secondary school after that year.
By achieving universal literacy while the child is in primary school, we remove the duplicated cost of administering a parallel system of remediation to achieve literacy while the child is at the junior high and all age level which runs into billions of dollars each year.
More important, is the inestimable value to society of gaining a better Jamaican.
Greater efficiency is only part of the education solution; we must also grapple with the question of quality in our education system.
Is our education system providing equal life chances and opportunities to all Jamaicans?
Are all our schools providing an acceptable quality education service?
Can all Jamaicans access quality education?
I believe the answers to these questions are self evident.
We do not have enough high school places for all our primary school students, and the quality of our primary education does not now guarantee that all primary school students would have the level of literacy to manage a full secondary curriculum.
However, as literacy improves the demand for high school places will increase. This leads to more intensive competition for the limited preferred spaces that offer a high standard of education.
There were approximately 39,000 first form spaces in 159 high schools for the 49,000 students who sit GSAT each year.
Of the 47,000 parents who selected a school of first choice, 40,000 of them chose only 56 of 159 high schools.
Parents only considered 35% of spaces as being preferred spaces. This reflects the parent’s perception of our schools and is a very accurate indicator of the uneven quality of education service being offered by our schools.
To address the problem of limited access to quality education the government has developed a comprehensive strategy of building more spaces, assuring quality and improving institutional and instructional leadership in schools.
Establishment of the National Education Trust
To build the school spaces need, we have now established the National Education Trust, which is chaired by Dr. Marshall Hall.
The idea behind the Trust is to develop a mechanism by which we can build out the education infrastructure in a rapid way to provide enough secondary places for all students leaving primary school, and to manage and maintain the public education assets of Jamaica.
In the coming months you will be hearing more about how you can contribute to the process of building schools through the National Education Trust.
Centres of Excellence
Aside from building the physical spaces, we must ensure that all schools are of the highest quality so that parents will want to send their children to them.
We have developed a school management concept called the Centre of Excellence where from the outset, with no room for mediocrity and complacency to set in, the highest standards of performance are established and maintained.
This is supported by and written into a performance-based contract with the principal.
All newly opened schools will be operated as Centres of Excellence.
We have tested elements of the concept with the opening of the Belmont Academy in Westmoreland last year.
The reviews of the performance of this school have been very encouraging. I will therefore be taking to Parliament shortly a new Scheme of Management to establish the “Centre of Excellence Belmont Academy”, to be followed thereafter by Mansfield Academy and Steer Town Academy.
National Education Inspectorate
The high demand for spaces in only a few schools is cause for action, however to know exactly what is wrong in the school we must investigate the school’s operation comprehensively and objectively.
The National Education Inspectorate is now operational under the auspices of the Ministry of Education and this year we have inspected 30 schools.
Inspection will be a regular feature of the system.
The reports will guide informed decision making in the allocation of necessary resources to support schools in weak areas.
In line with our emphasis on accountability and transparency, we will be publishing the reports and collating best practices for dissemination throughout the system.
School Improvement Act
The Ministry cannot allow school failure to cause our children to fail.
There are 84 high schools accounting for 21,000 spaces, of which only 4,000 of those spaces were selected as first choices.
Even though students are placed in these schools, the quality of education is perceived not to be high.
Legislation is being designed to give the Ministry the power to protect the interests of students and parents.
The School Improvement Act will mean giving the Ministry greater power to intervene in the running of a school where a serious failure in management has occurred, or where the quality of the education service being provided is adjudged by inspection to be below acceptable standards, as to threaten the public’s interest.
The Ministry is in the process of finalizing a Green Paper to facilitate consultation with its stakeholders and public debate on this very important measure.
THE NATIONAL COLLEGE FOR EDUCATIONAL LEADERSHIP
Oftentimes school failure can be directly linked to weak institutional leadership.
The Ministry will be emphasizing the importance of leadership in schools and is developing an accountability framework to ensure that leaders execute policy to the highest standards.
In addition, the government will be investing in creating a new framework for identifying training and certifying principals.
The National College for Educational Leadership will be established initially within the framework of the Jamaica Teaching Council and will seek to train a cohort of principals who would be able to take over the management of schools that are placed under the School Improvement Act or the Centre of Excellence Programme.
Eventually this College will provide trained principals for all schools in Jamaica.
The government is serious about improving the efficiency and quality of education.
We are taking the necessary steps to make sure that the public’s interests are well served.
As we look forward to another year of schooling, we must ask ourselves the question – Is it the society that shapes the school, or the school that shapes the society?
Some believe that it is the intake from the society that determines the success of the school.
As your Minister of Education I cannot believe that. It must be the schools, the socializing arm of the State that must change the society.
I challenge school leaders and administrators, teachers, parents to make sure that we take this crop of students, empower them with knowledge, imbue them with confidence, and return them to the society better than how we got them.
It is the schools that will make better Jamaicans.
I want to thank those teachers, principals and parents who have bought into the vision and who are working assiduously to make the vision a reality.
We are seeing some successes, but now is not the time to become complacent. We have a long way to go.
I pray for God’s grace and strength as we proceed along this journey.
May God bless you!