VIRTUAL AND NOT REAL SAVINGS IN EDUCATION

 Errol Miller

 We are living in the age of virtual reality. It is possible to simulate the real by giving the feeling and appearance of the actual. This is an excellent tool for learning. Simulation has great possibilities in education. However, the application of simulation to schools and school systems is still in its infancy. It is not possible to train pilots by simulating flying in machines that never leave the ground but give the trainee pilots all of the sights and sensations of flying an aircraft. It is still not possible to do good simulations of the interactions between students and teachers in the classroom.

What has taken me totally by surprise is that the first application of simulation in education in Jamaica is that of virtual savings in ‘educational expenditure’ by way of the projections in the KMG/Peat Marwick Report. While I have still not been able to see a copy of this report, those who have seen it have highlighted teachers leave and teacher deployment as two of the main areas in which Government could save over one billion dollars in its current budget. But is this real or virtual?

Take the matter of study and vacation leave of teachers. One has to make a distinction between personal eligibility of teachers and the system-wide grants of leave to teachers annually. A teacher becomes eligible to apply for and is granted study leave by holding a permanent post and having taught for two years. The teacher becomes eligible for one term’s vacation leave by virtual of holding a permanent post and having taught for five years. These conditions of eligibility are quite generous. However, it must be understood that these are conditions of eligibility and are not entitlements. Being eligible does not mean that the teacher automatically gets the leave. Nor is the teacher entitled to any compensation for not having been granted the leave after meeting the eligibility criteria.

A critical point that must be understood is that the Code of Regulations of the Education Act stipulates that no more than 10 percent of teachers in a public school or college can be granted study and vacation leave at any one time. This cap on the proportion of teachers that can be granted leave at any one time means that while individual teachers become eligible after two or five years, in actual fact teachers as a whole can only be granted such leave once every ten years.

Moreover, teachers eligible for study and vacation leave are not evenly distributed across the school system. Accordingly, in any particular year, there are long queues of eligible teachers lined up in some schools and no eligible teachers in some schools. Hence, in the school system as a whole, the actual proportion of teachers granted study and vacation leave in any year is less than 10 percent. The real figure could be closer to seven or eight percent. By my back of the envelope calculations, on average teachers are actually granted study and vacation leave once every 12 to 14 years. This is not generous.

Somebody would have to show me, therefore, exactly how changing eligibility criteria of the individual teacher will lead to actual savings on teachers’ leave in the system as a whole. As of now, I am totally unconvinced.

Notice I have not dealt with the vexed issue of altering the eligibility criteria. These were agreed through the collective bargaining process and were conceded at times when the government was not able to pay the teachers. Leave eligibility concessions were made in lieu of pay. To unilaterally take back the leave eligibility agreements would breach and practically destroy the collective bargaining process. On the other hand, to negotiate with the JTA to change the leave criteria would, without doubt, lead to opening up the pay question.

The matter of teacher deployment is several times more difficult than the leave question. Teachers are employed to individual school boards. The Ministry of Education cannot transfer teachers from one school to the next. For the Government to acquire this power, teachers would have to be made civil servants. To say that this would be a tall order would no doubt compete for the prize of understatement of the year. Critical rights currently enjoyed by teachers would be substantially altered in such a transformation. These include the right of tenure in a particular school, the right to connect one’s service across different stints in the profession and the right to participate as activists and representatives in the political process.

Currently, teachers are paid 75 percent of the salaries of civil servants of comparable qualifications and experience. How could the Government make teachers civil servants in order to be able to better deploy them across the school system and not immediately adjust their salaries to bring them in line with the rest of the civil service? Any savings resulting from redeployment would disappear in increased salaries.

From what I have been able to glean about the recommendations of the KPMG/Peat Marwick Report concerning teachers’ leave and teacher deployment, I have come to the conclusion that the result will be virtual and not real savings.  In a nutshell, these recommendations are not practical. If the Government proceeds to try to implement them the result will be to destabilize the education system long before any savings will result. These recommendations constitute a recipe for ‘confrontation’ between the teachers and the Government. They are not practical measures to achieve efficiency gains and savings.

With so much being said about performance pay, I am sure that the Government and KPMG have related to quantum of savings that are actually realized from the recommendations with the compensation to be paid for the Report. Virtual savings should be compensated with virtual pay.

March 3, 1999

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