EDUCATION: A WATCHING BRIEF

Errol Miller

 During the recent election campaign, all three major parties placed education as the top priority in their manifestos. To all educators, and to the electorate as a whole, this was a welcome sign. Such recognition of the importance of education to our future by the major contenders gave hope that whoever won, the support for education would be assured. I guess I have been around long enough not to take many things for granted. The fact is that no political party dare face the Jamaican electorate without paying due deference and respect to the importance of education. After elections, however, it could be a quite different matter.

I can remember quite vividly 1978 when we as principals of schools and colleges were told that we had to cut back our institutions’ expenditure by any means we saw fit, in order to make do with the reduction in Government’s provision for education. We were told that the social sector and to hold strain while the productive sector was assisted to turn the economy around. Twenty years late the productive sector has not been able to turn the economy around and education has suffered from repeated cutbacks. In real terms, that is at constant prices, we are now spending less than half of what we did in 1974 on each child in secondary school. Then we wonder why our students are not doing well in CXC.

I can well remember when in the 1994 salary negotiations when the JTA Negotiating Team showed that based on the surplus that Government had on the current account Government was in a position to pay the teachers the increases that they had claimed. The Minister of Finance replied by insisting that the surplus had been sterilized in order to control inflation and could not be used to pay increases to teachers. However, in 1996 that surplus was the first amount that was un-sterilized, contaminated I suppose and used in the bail-out of the financial sector. In retrospect, it is true to say that part of the bail-out of the financial sector has been paid for by increases denied to teachers and other public sector workers.

The point I am making by quoting these examples is quite simple. During the period of structural adjustment education and teachers have been called upon to make deep sacrifices. In real terms expenditure in education has retrogressed over the last twenty years. At the same time with each painful measure to reduce public expenditure and each increase in taxes, some Government spokesman or apologist has made the claim that these measures were necessary if the government was to provide adequately for schools and education.

In the decade of the 1990s the current financial year, 1997/98 represents the first time that expenditure on education has been increased in real terms. The true test of whether this was a ploy in an election year of whether it represents a fundamental change in the Government’s policy in funding education will be revealed in the 1998/99 budget that should be unveiled in a few months time.

The Government Budget for the next financial year is currently under construction. I hear the various pundits in economics and finance sounding off to the effect that the Government will need to show greater fiscal discipline and show this in tangible terms by balancing its recurrent budget. No mention is being made of the fact that the disappearance of the surplus on the recurrent budget is largely due to indiscipline in the financial and private sectors. I hear none of these pundits making any statements to the effect that education must not suffer from the fall-out resulting from the Government bail-out or private businesses.

My concern is that because Education is such a substantial part of the budget, in the past, reduction in Government expenses and fiscal discipline have been code words for cutbacks in the provision for education. My word to my colleagues in education who spend our lives working to provide a sound education for our children, we cannot allow it to go like that this time around. We cannot be taken in by pleas of nationalism to make sacrifices for the sake of the nation by doing with less in making the education system work. The future of the country does not reside in the private sector or in the financial sector it rests with how well we and our children are educated and trained to cope with a world demanding ever high levels of education, training and competence.

We in the education sector better let our voices be heard now in telling the Government that we will be holding it to the commitment to make education the priority during this term of office. In particular, we will be, judging from the Budget of 1998/99 as to whether the Government is serious about keeping its commitment. Any reduction in the level of education expenditure in real terms in the new budget will be unacceptable.

January 19, 1998