Editorial | Serious questions for the budget debate | Remark

I HOPE THE debate that Finance Minister Dr. Nigel Clarke opened this week on the government’s budget for the new fiscal year will catalyze serious political discourse, especially on issues related to Jamaica’s future. . Times and circumstances demand it.

Even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine raised the specter of a conflict between Moscow and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization alliance and a new Cold War, international relations were tense. America has made it known that it considers rising China to be a strategic competitor, whose ambitions it is keen to contain. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has not only plunged the world into recession, but has reopened questions about globalization that were hitherto considered settled. Today, the war in Eastern Europe adds a new energy crisis to the cornucopia of problems.

In this environment, the blustery high-score, low-level political theater that usually passes for a budget debate simply won’t cut it. And to the extent that it has already happened, it should stop. There are too many fundamental questions critical to Jamaica’s short, medium and long-term survival to address, including how the country might accelerate its conversion to renewable energy and wean itself off fossil fuels.

Indeed, a fortnight ago, alternative energies could be considered an important but not necessarily urgent issue. But at that time, Dr. Clarke had a budget based on oil costing $75 a barrel. Oil is now trading around US$130, with fears it could claim a substantial upside.

This is just one example of a problem that could jeopardize the island’s economic recovery from COVID-19 and the possibility of pulling itself out of historically weak growth, which was, in part, as much a reflection of low labor productivity than bad macroeconomic policies.

Workmanship quality

The short-term answer to the productivity conundrum lies on many fronts. The basic solution, however, rests on the quality of the country’s workforce; its ability to compete globally. This, fundamentally, concerns education and training. And that suggests another topic that should be high on Parliament’s agenda this budget season.

Indeed, the budget debate is an excellent opportunity for Dr Clarke and Prime Minister Andrew Holness to engage in an in-depth discussion of the Patterson Commission report which examined how to transform education in Jamaica. In the few months since the report was published, the government and other key stakeholders, including the teachers’ union, head teachers and parent-teacher groups, have been too tight-lipped about their offers.

Our suggestion, then, is that Prime Minister Holness, a former education minister, begin his speech by explaining his administration’s thinking on an education sector to which the Patterson Commission (led by renowned sociologist Orlando Patterson) gave much of attention and its recommendations are likely to generate the most controversy: early childhood education. This will cause controversy not because of what they said about the needs of the sector, but because of their recommendation of how it could be funded – by transferring the money from the third and professional sectors.

Bad return on investment

Poster images of Jamaica’s failure in education are, of course, well known – and often repeated by this newspaper. The island spends relatively as much and in some cases more than its regional counterparts on education – over 5% of GDP. Yields, however, are mediocre.

A third of pupils leave primary school illiterate; 56 percent of sixth graders do not read well; and 57% cannot extrapolate ideas from simple sentences. And while just over 40% of students taking the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate exams from the Caribbean Examination Council pass five subjects in one sitting with either maths or English, only 28% do so with maths and language. ‘English.

The result: a significant portion of Jamaica’s educational resources are devoted to remediation, because we don’t get it right the first time – or sooner. A significant part of the problem pointed out by the commission is the weak foundation on which children start.

More than 95,000 children are enrolled in an early childhood institution, which represents more than 93% of the cohort, one of the highest in the world. But the quality of these institutions, mostly private and community schools, is generally low and the teachers largely untrained.

At the time of writing the report, of more than 2,200 early childhood facilities in Jamaica, only 280 were fully certified and, according to the commission, “of the remainder, only 37 (1.4%) licensed are operating with a license. valid. one-year permit. The report proposes a massive overhaul of the sector, including teacher training and other support for institutions, which involves, where possible, transforming underutilized schools into early childhood facilities.

The government, for the fiscal year 2022-23, allocated $5.1 billion (less than 5% of education spending) to preschool education. He would have to find much more than that to meet the recommendations of the Patterson report, which indicated that he could find some of the money from the HEART Trust/NSTA, the agency that funds vocational training with the money he receives through a payroll tax, but has a capacity utilization problem. Some of the rest of the spending would also come from small chunks of the tertiary sector.

Obviously, if we don’t do it right at the early childhood level, it will be more difficult to do it right later, which makes what the Patterson Commission has to say worth discussing – especially in these times. .

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