Editorial | Overhaul education bureaucracy
For many head teachers and school boards, the education ministry’s directive that in-class students return to wearing masks is an “I-told-you-so” moment. Though not quite as obvious, the development also provides another reminder of the continued failure of the Government to engage a serious public discussion on the report of the reform of Jamaica’s education system by a commission that was chaired by the distinguished Jamaican intellectual and academic, Orlando Patterson.
In this case, the issue relates to governance, especially how the renewed mask-wearing mandate exemplifies the education ministry as a hulking, mostly inefficient and over-centralised bureaucracy, where decision-making often excludes those who they actually impact and are implemented without supporting empirical data. Although, in this case, the decision happens to be right.
The directive on masks came in a circular from the chief education officer, Kasan Troupe, to the ministry’s regional officers, to be passed on to principals – a process that largely highlights what those offices – in the absence of the increased autonomy proposed by the 2004 Rae Davis task force on education – are essentially drop boxes for the central ministry.
The reintroduction of masks in classrooms was triggered by the rising COVID-19 cases on the island, including in schools. Indeed, the health ministry says Jamaica is in the fifth wave of the disease. In the second week of May, for example, schools reported 617 suspected cases of COVID-19 among students, of which 41 per cent were confirmed.
Principals largely believe that the spike was almost inevitable, given the low vaccination rate among Jamaicans. Only 24 per cent of the population is fully vaccinated against the COVID-19. At last count, 41 per cent of the 240,000 students recommended for vaccination had received at least one dose of a vaccine.
Head teachers and school boards, however, believe that the surge in schools could have been mitigated. In mid-March, when the Government rescinded most of its COVID-19 mandates, including the requirement to wear masks in public places, many head teachers and boards felt that decision-making on the matter should be devolved to them. That didn’t happen. Perhaps the education ministry didn’t make a sufficiently strenuous argument to that effect to the Cabinet. Or, maybe the concept of subsidiarity isn’t ingrained in its bureaucrats.
While this isn’t the most fundamental case of the potentially negative impact of over-centralised decision-making in education, the development highlights some of the governance issues raised in the Patterson report, including its reiteration of the Davis task force’s recommendation that the education ministry’s regional offices be given greater operational responsibilities, while the centre concentrated on policy.
In the nearly two decades since the 2004 recommendation, the Patterson report noted, “That has not been realised as there has not been as much devolution of responsibilities and authority by the ministry.” Further, a lack of resources, including too few and appropriately trained staff and a limited use of technology, make the offices currently structured, “ill-equipped to increase responsibilities”.
Yet, even as authority firmly resides in the centre, often policy decisions don’t have the benefit of analysis based on empirical data. Indeed, the Patterson report is replete with instances where data it needed and believed would be routinely available in the education ministry wasn’t there or accessible. The ministry’s education management information system (EMIS) is, at best, inadequate.
NO COMPLETE STUDENT DIRECTORY
Said the commission: “...[T]here is currently no complete student directory that covers all levels and uses the School Education Programme-Section-Student identification paradigm to identify the school, curriculum, and section to which each student belongs. For teachers’ professional development plans, the … (ministry) has yet to establish full digital support and monitoring systems.”
Further, the report discovered that while the education ministry had a “plethora of targets and strategies” on its agenda many of them were “misaligned and overlapping”. Additionally, its operations were insufficiently transparent. Targets were often not publicly disclosed or communicated about and “the progress made by relevant actors for all targets is not consistently measured”, the report noted.
Some things can be improved by internal tinkering and legislative changes, but the Patterson report repeated the long-standing call for, which successive governments have promised to undertake, overhaul of the ministry.
Said the report: “Given the vast budget allocated to the sector and the performance challenges it is important that an organisational review be conducted of the central ministry and the regions at a minimum. During both official and informal interviews, the committee also unearthed concerns regarding the cultural dynamics in the ministry as well as the accountability structures of the ministry. The committee was not, however, equipped to do a full organisation review of the ministry, but the committee believes strongly that it is important to do one at this point given the underlying issues seen throughout the consultations. Details regarding this proposal can be found in Section 6 of this report.”
It ought to be clear that the poor state of education in Jamaica is too serious a matter for the issue to be allowed to drift, or for the Patterson report to gather dust. Neither is it an issue solely for the Government to deal with. All of us must be involved. That is why a public discussion of the commission’s findings and recommendations is important.