It has become customary, at the start of the academic year, for the commencement of classes in some state-run schools to be delayed either on account of defective schoolhouses or a shortage of furniture. The trend has persisted for years. Some of the deficiencies, like unreliable water supply and washroom facilities that are health hazards have become open sores on the body of our education system. Teachers and children alike have come to accept these problems more-or-less as a way of life. Some children have spent their entire school lives in schoolhouses plagued by serious shortcomings.
Whatever claims the Ministry of Education may make to the contrary one has to question whether in fact there exists a coherent plan for the maintenance and upkeep of our school buildings and facilities in circumstances where schools are allowed to fall apart before our very eyes with remedial interventions being made only when they can no longer properly serve their purpose. And if, as appears to be the case, there is no structured regime for maintenance and repairs then that surely has to be seen as the root of the problem.
Parent protests over conditions in schools have grown more frequent in recent years. Some of the protests have been sufficiently militant to cause the immediate closure of the affected schools. The protests are a sign that some parents are no longer prepared to have their children subjected to conditions that compromise both their physical health and their intellectual well-being.
The Ministry of Education, understandably, finds the protests discomfiting. It would much prefer that the shortcomings in schools not attract the media attention that derives from the protests. That way it can respond to the problems in its own time or in some cases, at least so it seems, simply pretend that the problems do not exist.
Whether the Ministry is interpreting the significance of the protests correctly is difficult to say. The recent protest at the Golden Grove Secondary School, for example, was an assertion of parent power that appeared designed to elicit action beyond the routine promises that something would be done. Last week’s meeting between the Golden Grove parents and regional education officials may be a significant development. The fact that a parent protest has actually yielded the result of forcing the Ministry of Education to sit down with the parents would have been noted by other parents whose children attend schools where other problems exist. What happens in the Golden Grove instance may well set an important precedent.
The problems at Golden Grove did not materialize overnight and the posture of the parents derives from a collective conclusion that enough is enough. Here again the point has to be made that the problems at Golden Grove must be seen in the context of the absence of a wider schools maintenance regimen that guards against the eventuality of schoolhouses literally falling apart before interventions are made; and even in the altogether unacceptable absence of such a system one wonders whether the necessary remedial work to the school could not have been addressed before the start of the academic year.
The Ministry of Education is not likely to admit that a planned and sustained programme for the maintenance of schools does not exist. To do so would be to concede an unacceptable level of managerial incompetence on its part. We do not, however, require the Ministry’s admission. The Golden Grove case makes the point.
The customary approach of the Minister of Education to the management of his Ministry’s image is to regale us with carefully prepared statistics about examination results that often seek to put the best face on outcomes that are always not as praiseworthy as they might appear. This approach is designed to illuminate the quality of an education system that is really doing no more than moving along after a fashion. The Ministry never really talks seriously about the problems associated with conditions at schoolhouses, except, that is, in response to a direct question from the media; and when such questions are posed the Ministry never fails to trot out the now familiar response that the run-down, unsafe and unhealthy conditions in some schools have to do with the regional administration and not with his Ministry. That response remains unacceptable. Wherever the responsibility for repairs may lie, it is the Ministry of Education that has the ultimate responsibility for education delivery and it is to that Ministry that we must look to get answers to questions on the issue of safe schools.
It is true that the decentralization of responsibility for the physical maintenance of schools does not appear to have served our education system well. Whether or not matters as important as ensuring that our schools are properly equipped for education delivery should be left to the regional system which, in some notable cases, has become bogged down by bureaucracy, sloth, inefficiency and politics is, to say the least debatable; and why should Regional Education Officers be reduced to begging and pleading with regional public servants to fix leaking roofs, provide proper toilet facilities and repair stairways that are on the verge of collapse? Surely there are other professional matters pertaining to the delivery of education that demand their attention.
If the mechanisms that ought to enable effective coordination between the regional administration and the Ministry of Education to ensure the proper maintenance of schools are not working well that is the Minister’s problem. It is for him to resort to Cabinet or to his colleague under whose portfolio the regional system falls in order to clear the logjam. The excuse of sloth and bureaucracy on the part of the regional administration is a reflection of the Minister’s failure to effectively address a problem that is seriously affecting a critical aspect of his own portfolio.
In the matter of the absence of a planned and sustained maintenance regime that ensures that schools are kept in the best possible order, the problems are not confined to a lack of timely maintenance. They include issues that range from unreliable security arrangements for school buildings to the use of school premises for public functions the nature of which sometimes renders schools vulnerable to abuse, theft and vandalism. So that apart from the problems associated with the absence of a reliable maintenance regime there is also the issue of protecting schools against theft and vandalism. Again, one wonders whether the Ministry has given any serious consideration to the role that theft and vandalism plays in the state of some of our schools.
Education Ministry officials have openly criticized what they say are corrupt practices that allow security firms to be paid for services which they frequently do not provide. They have pointed out too that some schools have no security whatsoever, which means that at nights, on weekends and during the holiday periods, they are at the mercy of vandals and vagrants. This surely has to change as part of the broader solution to the problem.
The Golden Grove Secondary School problem repeats itself elsewhere. At the start of the academic year entire classes at St Pius Primary School had to be shifted to another schoolhouse – most likely to the inconvenience of the host school – in order to allow for badly-needed repairs at St. Pius. Here again is a case in which a school building appears to have been allowed to fall into a state of considerable disrepair before action is taken at a cost in inconvenience to both students and teachers; and if, as we are told is the case with St. Pius, the current works include extensions to take account of the increase in the school population, that too ought to be factored in to the kind of forward planning which the technocrats in the Ministry are expected to do. Is any such forward planning being done in the Education Ministry or is it just a matter of applying a fire-fighting approach to what is in fact a complex and ongoing problem?
Furniture availability is another common problem in several of our schools. Here, it appears that at least part of the problem is one of ineffective management since in one case that occurred at the start of the current school year we were told that the problem had nothing to do with the actual availability of furniture but with the absence of a truck to transport the furniture to the school. To have children sit three or four to a bench built to accommodate two and to place their books in their laps in order to write when the only excuse for the absence of furniture is the unavailability of transportation is, to say the least, an absurd circumstance.
One need hardly extend the discourse into the litany of other problems associated with the proper maintenance of schools and which the school populations will have to continue to ensure. Those that do not come to public attention have to do with recognition on the parts of some Heads of schools that complaining changes little even though we must wait to see whether the Golden Grove development might set some sort of worthwhile precedent.
Interestingly, the failings of our education system are rarely if ever linked to the unacceptable conditions in which education delivery sometimes occurs even though there are studies that have been done elsewhere on the nexus between the learning environment and success rate. Perhaps the reluctance of the Ministry of Education to countenance this reality has to do with a concern that to do so would be to become more aware of its own limitations.