School attendance and the harsh economic realities

Thursday, August 30, 2018

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Among the unfortunate things about modern Jamaica is that there are still many children of school age who attend school only infrequently or not at all.

In January, Education Minister Ruel Reid reported than on average 20 per cent of children are absent from school each day. Hence the relevance of the recent call by Prime Minister Andrew Holness for parents to send their children to school regardless of their circumstances.

The prime minister spent time at a recent political meeting in St Elizabeth telling parents that their children's tuition is covered by Government. And also that school leaders have no right to block children if parents and guardians are unable to pay requested contributions, referred to as auxiliary fees.

We hope parents as well as school leaders will get the message loud and clear.

But, of course, the story doesn't end there. Many children miss school not because of anything to do with school fees but because of other factors such as no money to buy school shoes, school uniform, lunch or to pay bus fare.

And then there is poor parenting which, we regret to say, is a major problem in Jamaica.

In terms of the economic constraints, we are aware that the Programme of Advancement through Health and Education (PATH) does make a positive difference for many at the bottom end of the socio-economic spectrum. But PATH does not go far enough.

Also, the anecdotal evidence at ground level suggests that there are a large number of people who should be on PATH but are not, for one reason or another.

In that regard we believe there is great need for political representatives and community leaders including educators and pastors, etc, to be more proactively involved in helping those in need secure social services.

Of all the costs plaguing parents as they seek to send their children to school, perhaps none provide more of a headache than transportation. We dare say the problem is particularly acute in the rural areas. In some cases children, particularly high school students, are being asked to travel from one end of their parish to the other. Many travel across parish borders. Some have to change buses and taxis, twice, thrice, while travelling to and from school.

Clearly then, the school transportation bill can run to thousands of dollars per week. In such circumstances, it's not hard to imagine that some parents will, on occasion, feel compelled to choose food and other necessities ahead of school.

It would be so much easier if, as a matter of course, children were to be placed in high schools closest to their homes. Sadly, that ideal remains a distant dream.

We note that a year ago, the Ministry of Education launched a pilot transportation system for schools in St Thomas, Portland, St Mary, Clarendon, Manchester, St Elizabeth, Hanover, and St James. As we understand it, children on PATH are the beneficiaries.

We are aware that Mr Reid has spoken of his own aspiration for a comprehensive national school bus system. Cost is not the only aspect here. Safety and punctuality are also major considerations. Given Jamaica's current economic realities, we don't expect that Mr Reid's vision will be realised in a hurry. Nonetheless, we look forward to the day.

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