Sat | Dec 3, 2022

Editorial | Need teacher transfer rule

Published:Monday | August 15, 2022 | 12:06 AM

While the education ministry has not commented on the matter, we take at face value the fear of some principals that classrooms will be thrown into chaos at the start of the new school year in September because of a summer exodus of teachers for more lucrative employment overseas.

This is a recurring problem, which is accentuated in periods when the economy, as is now the case, is under even greater stress. The solution, fundamentally, is to pay our best teachers something closer to comparative salaries and create a work environment that entices them to stay at home. That, the policymakers will say, is difficult at this time.

In the meantime, there is a looming crisis to which we hope the Government, particularly the education minister, Fayval Williams, is paying attention and fashioning short-term solutions, which should include a more efficient deployment and creative use of the talents remaining in the systems. Among the possible measures is one championed by Ronald Thwaites, without much success, when he was education minister nearly a dozen years ago, and has been reprised by the Patterson Commission that looked at how to transform education in Jamaica: greater flexibility for the authorities to transfer teachers to where they are needed in the system.

Although paid by the Government, most of the island’s teachers are employed to specific schools and their boards, rather than the central ministry. So, the full scale of the teacher shortage won’t be known until the data is collated by the education ministry. However, last week a number of head teachers told The Gleaner that their schools have, since last year, been hit by the departure of the specialist teachers across several subjects, including mathematics and English language – areas in which the Jamaican education system faces significant challenges.

“Anecdotally, I really don’t have the figures ... but it seems that a number of people are going,” said Linvern Wright, the president of the Jamaica Association of Principals of Secondary Schools.

CANNOT PAY BILLS

The departing teachers are apparently heading mostly for the United States and Canada, although some have been lured to school systems elsewhere in the Caribbean. Mostly, they leave because of pay. “I have been a principal for a number of years and the truth is, there are teachers who cannot pay their bills,” said Mr Wright. “... If you can’t pay your bills and there is a lure of better money elsewhere, people are going to go.”

The problem left by the departures is twofold. First, the resignations are often last-minute, leaving head teachers little time to recruit new staff. But even when principals get early notice, it is hard to find suitable replacements, especially for key subjects. For instance, Raymon Treasure, the principal of York Castle High School in Brown’s Town, St Ann, is having difficulty replacing teachers for technological subjects like mechanical and electrical engineering. He has also had to use pretrained university graduates to teach English language.

York Castle’s problem is so acute that the school has had to share some subject teachers with the nearby Brown’s Town High School. Which raises the prospect of a broader use of this arrangement, but by employing technology, instead of the physical presence of outside teachers. Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced schools online when physical classrooms were closed, revealed what can happen. Now, with at-school sessions resumed, it ought to be possible, and easier, to have specialist teachers in remote locations, supported by in-class teaching assistants, deliver lessons to students of several schools at the same time.

These skilled teachers need not be in Jamaica, if they are teaching a specific syllabus, as would be the case with students preparing for Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) exams, or its advanced proficiency counterpart, CAPE. It is an idea the Caribbean Community’s (CARICOM) education ministers and the Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC) should give consideration.

MISMATCH

There is also the concern raised by Mr Thwaites during Parliament’s 2013-2014 Sectoral Debates, about the mismatch in schools “involving several thousand teachers, qualified in one discipline while teaching another, while you have excess or inadequate capacity in another school 10 miles down the road”. Currently, teachers can only be redeployed if they volunteer. They cannot be transferred without their agreement.

Said Mr Thwaites at the time: “We must cooperate to change this. There must be legislative authority to transfer teachers from one school to another to meet children’s needs.”

More than a decade later, little has happened. The matter was put back on the education agenda by the Patterson Commission.

The commission recommended that, in the short term, a scheme be piloted to grant one of the education ministry’s regional offices the authority to deploy teachers to where their skills are needed within the region. Over the medium term, the commission said, the contractual arrangements of teachers should be modified “to allow mobility within a region to areas of staff shortage”, in the context of a specific “teacher deployment policy in which regions have a role in distributing teachers within their jurisdiction”.

“The policy should allow teachers to retain their professional status if reassigned to another school, consistent with the (non-administrative) career track previously proposed,” it said.

This is a matter of some urgency and ought to be fast-tracked. It should be among the issues that the Jamaica Teachers’ Association has on its agenda, and gives the green light to, at its annual conference next week.