A third or more of all Jamaican schools, at all levels, are owned or sponsored by 11 Christian denominations and a few trusts. There are nearly 700 of them. Churches and Christian trusts are the most invested private group in the education sector. Their influence will be even greater if they forge a common cause with the approximately 500 independent schools.
In so many cases, faith-based schools provide the strongest and most comprehensive educational experience in the country. This is because faith-based schools offer more values-based teaching and learning than is evident in schools with little tradition and a purely secular curriculum. Of course, that’s not always the case, but it’s generally true. And it is an asset that we must use more.
These religious and trust institutions receive substantial taxpayer support. They couldn’t work otherwise. It’s a good partnership. The relationship between church and state in Jamaican education needs to be reviewed to ensure more respect and collaboration.
Long before backward and racist colonial authorities and local assemblies provided educational opportunities for black and poor Jamaicans, men and women of faith created many of the institutions we enjoy today. Countless billions of capital expenditures and human resource donations have resulted in the nodes of excellence that we take for granted these days.
This exemplary method, however, has its own problems. Coinciding with the government assuming responsibility for paying teachers, meeting other expenses and providing capital, religious bodies have largely reduced their influence over their schools, resigning themselves to control by the ministry of education. and the teachers’ union, low council activity and occasional religious devotions.
LACK OF PHILOSOPHY
It happened at our national peril. The main victim has been the absence of an educational philosophy that transcends the material and emphasizes the ethical and the spiritual. Perhaps the most glaring example has been the downgrading of civics and citizenship education writ large. Many young people leave school without having developed a sense of national identity or personal purpose. Go and find out where the army of non-voters, ultra-individualistic and social miscreants is cultivated!
Exam successes and extracurricular prowess are the gold standard for evaluating schools. But this is not enough. What about character and service? The Jamaican school needs a solid philosophy centered on the principle of the common good. This is the particular charism of religious traditions in our history. It is the antidote to individualistic secularism, absent from ethical moorings, which has invaded our psyche and our behavior.
We test academic performance at almost every level, but where do we measure positive character growth, social awareness, and engagement?
Individual denominations in education go far beyond trying to proselytize those they teach. No one tried to convert Bruce Golding when he was a student at St George’s College. What he and countless others have achieved there, at Jamaica College and other parochial and trust schools, is a strong ethic of social responsibility and a willingness to engage.
In the scandalously delayed analysis of the Patterson Commission report, the deepening of moral education at all levels of education should be a major concern. Hopefully the fragmentation of religious bodies in Jamaica is being overcome by a common understanding of the spiritual wasteland that is beyond us. This is manifested in the expansion of the work of the Ecumenical Commission on Education. Did the political class share the same concern?
Which brings us to the question of the composition and role of school boards. It is the duty of each board, and particularly of its president, to set the tone of the institution; be the point of unity between the community, the parents and the school; empower principal and teachers. Neither the central ministry nor the regional offices can substitute for or exceed these roles. A strong and enthusiastic board of directors makes a good school.
Membership of the Board of Directors cannot be based on political or religious favouritism. The practice that an MP has the right to choose the president of the schools in his constituency must be rejected. A better procedure is for appointments to these sensitive and involved posts to be decided by consultation between the MP, the director and the head of education. To politicize the school boards is to deepen tribalism, weaken the school and undermine the national good.
A new concordat between Church and State is expected to feature on the sidelines of the current consideration of the Jamaica Education Council Bill. It should include consultative structures for churches in the development of education policy as well as much greater independence for school boards. And for their part, Jamaica’s religious bodies must be willing to expand and deepen their involvement in the education and socialization of God’s youth.
“For those on the path to destruction, the message of the Cross is madness; but those on the way to salvation see it as evidence of God’s power. (1 Corinthians 1:18)
Reverend Ronald G. Thwaites is a lawyer. Send your comments to [email protected]