PLEASED TO MEET YOU: The minister greets audience members who came to hear his presentation.
On a balmy Tuesday evening at Carter Hall in Kingston, Rev. Ronald Thwaites, Jamaica's Minister of Education, is reflecting on the most recent developments in his portfolio responsibilities that informed much of his presentation at the seminar we're attending — a timely problems-and-solutions meditation centred on inequities in the education sector.
Of particular concern to TALLAWAH was the point Mr. Thwaites raised about the imminent closure of several institutions across the island. "We've closed about eight already, and we have about 15 or 16 to go this year," he informed us in a post-seminar interview. "Where the school is completely unviable and has lost its population there is no choice."
The shift system, an age-old fixture particularly at the primary level, will soon become a thing of the past. But in gradual stages. "First of all, we may have to alter enrolment in the shift schools," the minister said. "Second, we have to encourage them to take on what's called the extended day, giving each part of the cohort a full day rather than a portion of the day, which is what the shift system is about. And third, we have to construct new buildings to accommodate more [students]. We've already taken about 11 schools off the shift, and we're going to do about another 25 this year. The remainder will be done, hopefully, in the 2015/16 academic year."
Knowing what you know now as minister, we later asked him, is there anything you would have done differently? "When I came in, I thought we had to build 50 schools, which we could never afford," admitted Thwaites, who took over the post in January 2012. "But more than likely we will have to build a few new ones, using some of the methods I outlined here this evening. The revolutionizing of the education system is the number one priority of the ministry, which we feel will address some of the inequities."
The best politicians are notorious workaholics and today's generation of Jamaican government ministers have their work cut out for them dodging the enormous net reserved for "non-performers." But Minister Thwaites is a rather unique case in point: a public servant with his fingers in may pies. So how does he juggle it all — serving as an MP, a key figure in the Simpson-Miller administration, an esteemed deacon in the Catholic Church and a devoted family man? "Not very well," he confesses, shaking his head. "But you don't sleep much, you try as best as possible to use scheduling, and a lot of people help me. And that's a good thing."