Saturday, 30 November 2013

Understanding the environments in which schools operate (Part 4): The political environment

How well do school managers understand the political environment in which they work? They have to begin this process of understanding by examining the nature of power, their perspective of power and the political culture of the environment in which their schools are located.

To understand the nature of power, the school manager must have an understanding of the concept of politics. Because, at the heart of politics is power. If one asks many Jamaicans to attempt a definition of politics, one will get responses such as: Politics is dirty. It’s what the politicians do. It is voting in elections. It is violence and, from these responses, one will realise that the concept connotes lots of negative sentiments. These Jamaicans will tell you that they are not interested in politics, so why do they have to talk about it.
Many managers of schools take this position. Politics is what the politicians do and much of what they do is not good. So, only “special” people engage in it. What many of these managers of schools do not realise is that everyone engages in political activities or will engage in political activities in their lifetime.

From H. D. Lasswell way back in 1936 we get the idea of politics [as] who gets what, when and how, the title of his book. Inherent in this view of politics is the idea of decision making. Governments, families, schools, religious organisations, individuals, businesses – everyone – has limited resources. We have to make a decision in terms of how we allocate these resources, to whom and when. This is no easy task. Some sectors, individuals, projects will get more resources than others. And this will engender conflict. In addition to allocating resources the political process is supposed to manage conflicts. Thus, it is said that politics involves bargaining and compromise.
The education sector is only one of the sectors in the society which is competing for scarce resources. Each sector gets some resources which they allocate to their various responsibilities. Schools get some resources which they allocate to their different responsibilities. And, at each level of the system there will be conflict because there will be the perception that the amount of resources allocated to them is not enough.

The school managers may not get enough resources to do their jobs but their understanding of the external political environment and some of its working should help them to put actions that government makes as regards their schools in perspective.  
Managers of schools should also realise that the decisions that they make daily on the job are political decisions at the micro level, that is within their schools. They make decisions about how to allocate the scarce resources that they get according to their perceived need of each area of their responsibility.

Government has power to make decisions in society because the electorate gives them that power by electing them to office. School managers have power to make decisions as regards their areas of responsibilities because they were appointed to do so. What exactly is this power? Power is the ability to participate in decision making but it is also the ability to influence others usually towards accepting values/goals that are deemed to be “good” for society.
What is the perspective of school managers on power? What have they taken from the “theories” of power? Do they share a pluralistic view of power? Do they believe that everyone in the society (or their school community) possesses a measure of power in that they participate or they can participate in decision making if they wish to do so? Do they allow them to participate in decision making?

Or, do school managers hold an elitist view of power?  Do they believe that only individuals in society who possess desirable resources such as education, wealth, eminent positions and so on control power? Do they put themselves in this group?
 Or, do they believe that power is concentrated in the hands of only those who own the means of production? That is, today's business elite.

The elitist and the Marxist views of power privilege only a select group of people in society as controlling power and using it for their benefit. The pluralist view of power privileges everyone in society with possessing power to the extent that they take part in decision making.
So, do school managers see themselves, being the elites that they have become by virtue of their positions, as the sole possessors of power in their organisation to use as they see fit, or do they recognise the inalienable rights of members of staff and students to having a voice?

What managers of schools should realise is that at the heart of politics in democratic society is the idea of bargaining and the arrival at compromise in order to reduce conflicts. If groups have the distinct feeling that they are being marginalised they may take action which runs counter to the “good” of the organisation. Thus, managers of schools have to develop their political skills in dealing with their school community as well as those outside of their school communities.
The individuals within and outside of the school community are steeped in a political culture that’s been fermenting for a number of decades. This political culture refers to the ideas and beliefs that these individuals have about politics and the extent to which these ideas have influenced their lives.

This political culture is evident within the school. It is evident among members of staff and it is evident among students. Many managers of schools in Jamaica are working in environments that are rife with political polarisation. They are working in communities that the ideology of one party or the other dominates. While many members of staff can control their political antagonisms, many students cannot. One student or students expressing political views which are divergent from those held by other students may inadvertently cause conflict as has happened in the past.
Therefore, managers of schools have to develop strategies to keep their schools free of the polarising ideologies of the political culture that members of the school community take to schools with them. And even, those managers of schools who work in environments where political sentiments are restrained need to develop strategies to develop healthy attitudes as regards tolerance of political ideological difference.

Managers of schools, by virtue of their positions, have power. Many of them have not yet examined the nature of the power that they possess. However, they know that they have power.  And this knowledge determines their interactions with their subordinates. Do they exercise a coercive power, an expectation that compliance will be got as soon as they "snap their fingers"? Or do they possess the kind of power that facilitates the development of possibilities? The latter is recommended.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Understanding the environments in which schools operate, Part 3: The economic environment

Long time managers of schools (principals) as well as new managers need to constantly assess the economic environment of the country because the nature of the economic environment will determine the amount of resources that government, through the Ministry of Education, will make available to their schools. And the amount of resources that they get and use efficiently will determine the effectiveness of the school. Today, the economic environment in which schools operate is dire.

In 2009 the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) calculated that if Jamaica’s public debt burden were divided by all members of the population at the time then “each Jamaican would carry a debt burden of US$7,920, roughly three times the average annual income per person” ( This situation has not significantly improved since then and will not improve any time soon unless the economy experiences significant growth which it has not done in a very, very long time.
To put this issue in such personal terms the UNDP has brought home to us in a powerful way the severe nature of the country’s indebtedness. The extent of Jamaica’s indebtedness means that after Jamaica services its debt there is not much money left to invest in efforts at development.

Realising the state of the economic environment in the country, long time managers of schools should be engaged in a process of contemplation. They should be asking and finding answers to questions such as the following. How will we manage in this worsening economic environment? What strategies can we devise to offset some of the negative impact of insufficient resources? How can we productively involve the entire community in working with us to resolve some of the difficulties that our schools face? The bottom line is that they should be devising plans on how they can further negotiate their way through the financial challenges that they will continue to face in light of the continuing economic malaise of the country.
Persons who aspire to be managers of schools have to start putting on their thinking caps long before they accept positions as managers in the school system. Their major concern should be how they intend to do their jobs in an environment where resources that they consider vital to their adequately doing their jobs are limited. They need to accept the reality of which they will be a part. And like the long time managers of schools they will have to ask and answer some tough questions as they relate to their possible stewardship of schools.

Having accepted the reality of economic hardship that the country is experiencing, school managers should realise that their students are also impacted by the economic conditions of the country. When the economy shrinks, businesses are impacted and so is employment. According to the Statistical institute of Jamaica (STATIN) the unemployment rate as of July 2013 is 15.4% (
Of the more than 84% of the persons employed many are poor. That is, they have jobs and get paid at intervals. However, their remuneration is not enough to give them a decent standard of living. The managers of schools should realise that the fortunes or lack thereof of parents will impact the extent to which these parents will be able to meet their obligations as regards their children in school. Therefore, they have to devise plans to work with the parents in creative ways to ensure that they meet their obligations to the school. Many principals are already doing this. Others allow themselves to be stressed beyond measure because they say they do not have any resources, the parents don’t pay school fees and they don’t know what to do.
It is true that the amount that the government allocates to schools is not nearly adequate to do all the things that school managers want to do. However, managers of schools must realise that of the amounts that the government manages to scrape together to put a budget together, the education sector is given the biggest share. So, school managers have to work within the constraints imposed on them by the economic hardship that the country is undergoing.

There is no end in sight to this situation any time soon. Jake Johnston (2013) from the Centre for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), a Washington D. C. Based Think Tank opines in an article, The Multilateral Debt Trap in Jamaica, that a solution to Jamaica’s problem of high indebtedness would be the multilateral agencies writing off Jamaica’s debt to them ( ) .  

We can hope. However, in the meantime, managers of schools as well as managers of every other public institution in society will have to do the best they can with the resources they have.

photo above courtesy of

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Understanding the Environments in which schools operate (Part 2): The socio-cultural environment

School Managers must, if they have not yet seriously engaged themselves with this activity, develop an understanding of the socio-cultural environment in which students have their being. This environment does impact the performance of students either positively or negatively. Three elements of the socio-cultural environment demands study by school managers. Understanding these elements determines how these managers develop their vision for their schools.

The first element of the socio-cultural environment that requires much study by school managers is that of poverty. School managers need to acquaint themselves with the extent and nature of poverty in the country and in their locales. They can do this in several ways: either by reading about the subject as it relates to Jamaica, its manifestations and effects or they may listen to discussions of the issue on various media or they may sharpen their observation of what happens in their environment.
School Managers may be familiar with the usual definition of poverty as material deprivation, that is, the inability of persons to take care of their basic needs for food, clothing and shelter. Students wear uniforms to school. Many students regularly attend school so the issue of students possessing clothing is not of direct interest to school managers. However, if these school managers travel around the communities in which their students live they may realise that many of them live in substandard housing. And they may remember from their schooling that sociologists, from their studies, usually in other lands but whose findings may provide insights into any context in which people live, have determined that the physical space in which the child lives may impact their learning (See for example the work of J. W. B. Douglas (1964).

There is no doubt that many children who attend school come from households that are suffering from chronic poverty. Many of these children while they may have been able to acquire some form of clothing live in sub-standard housing. But, it is the lack of food that will greatly impact their learning. A child who is hungry cannot concentrate on anything else but food. The Ministry of Education has instituted a school feeding programme in schools. We may question the nutritional value of some of the food items on offer but the initiative is a bold move by government. What is of concern for a number of principals, however, is the amount of resources that the Ministry of Education provides to the schools to service this programme. They believe it is inadequate to feed all those who are in need.
However, if school managers work in environments where the population of the school comes mainly from poor households, and they are keen on improving the literacy level of students in their schools, they must be prepared to innovate beyond the Ministry’s provision to ensure that students in need are fed so that they will be in a position to take advantage of schooling.

School Managers may also find it useful to realise that the basic definition of poverty with which they have been familiar has been widened by scholars to open up the human condition to scrutiny as regards equity. For example, Amartya Sen (1987) has extended the basic definition of poverty to include the level of self actualisation to which people are exposed in their societies as a measure of poverty. Self actualisation, according to Dennis A. V. Brown (2001) in his lecture Poverty in the Caribbean, means in the context in which Sen uses it access to basic education, to primary health care, personal safety, to the supply of information necessary to make informed choices and to participate in the running of the society (p. 3). The UNDP has endorsed this view by Sen to the extent that it has added life expectancy and literacy to the measures of poverty.  If people have freedom from poverty in the senses outlined above they will be on their way to enjoying human development. Freedom from poverty is the very essence of human development as defined by the UNDP (

Managers of schools may recognise in the above definition of poverty a call for those who manipulate power to use it to realise positive outcomes for the less advantaged in society. In this light, they may recognise that they have a role to play in using their influence which they have gained by virtue of their positions in the education system to cause the advancement of literacy of all the students in their charge. They should not sit back, congratulating themselves on the progress that has been made to date in the education system which has impressively widened access to students at all levels of the system since independence. They must keep at the backs of their minds that a significant proportion of students today still leave primary school (almost 40%) without the requisite skills to function at the secondary level. And that many students leave the secondary level without acquiring much by way of literacy and numeracy (see previous articles in this blog).
So, though the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in its 2013 report has ranked Jamaica 85th on the Human Development Index (HDI) and has classified it as being one of the countries experiencing high human development, and it is, it still faces challenges in reducing poverty. And this poverty is negatively impacting the performance of many students in the education system.

As a result, school managers need to be fully aware of the full range of poverty with which students are grappling and try to manoeuvre around the limited resources that their schools possess to provide an enabling environment in which students can be more than they thought they could be.
The second issue in the social environment of Jamaica which managers of school have to consider before they move forward with the business of educating their students is crime and violence. Managers of schools should develop an awareness of the problem as it affects their students because many students are from environments where crime and violence have been accepted as natural parts of life. Oftentimes in the media we are made aware of criminally violent acts in school where students have migrated from verbal and what I will call simple physical assault on each other to murder.

Scholars like Anthony Harriott (2003) and colleagues have, in the edited work, Understanding Crime in Jamaica: New Challenges for Public Policy, postulated that the incidence of crime and violence in Jamaica is multi-causal, as to be expected. They have attributed crime and violence to events arising from the political history of the country, the search by community members for identity in light of their disadvantaged position in society as well as group conflicts as a result of organised crime. They have also postulated that there is a link between poverty and crime.
Recently, another study reported in the Jamaica Gleaner has provided some fantastic insights into the incidence of crime and violence in countries like Jamaica. If managers of schools choose to accept the findings of this “international study” carried out by a group of scientists from the University of Berkeley in California, findings which were widely criticised, then they will fold their arms and relax because, according to this study, the crime wave in Jamaica will not wane any time soon. These researchers see the incidence of crime and violence in societies as a function of the temperature of these societies. Heat is the major causal factor identified for the incidence of crime and violence. Jamaica is a hot country ( Monday August 5 20013).

What can managers of schools learn from the literature on crime and violence in the society? The major lesson that they may take from the literature is that the incidence of crime and violence in society today is caused by the interaction of many forces – historical forces hat still impact the present, sociological forces, economic forces and so on. School managers then will have to study their schools’ population to identify the types of behaviours that are prevalent in their schools that may be deemed as being criminal and violent and devise interventions making use of internal and external social intervention programmes to target them in order to reverse the number of such incidents in their schools.
A number of the children who have passed through the school system and will continue to pass through the school system have made and will continue to make conscious decisions to engage in violent and criminal behaviour. It is possible that the learning provided by the school may blunt the edge of their desire to follow criminal and violent pursuits. The managers of schools must continue to believe that their schools have a role to play in reversing undesirable behaviour in society.

The third issue in the social environment that may impact the performance of students is cultural practices adopted by members of many communities that do not place much emphasis on “book learning”. “Book learning” here refers to what teachers teach in school. The school is a symbol of this “book learning” against which many students rebel.
Managers of schools must realise this and use their influence to seek to reverse this trend which is evident in rural and urban communities. In many rural communities, for example, a number of students attend school irregularly. But there are a number of days when the attendance is expected to fall. If the parents of these students sell in the market children may either be absent from school on Wednesdays or Thursdays or Fridays depending on the days their parents go to the market. These parents expect that their boys and sometimes girls will accompany them to their farms to harvest crops to be sold at the market. In urban centres this trend of some students being absent on certain days may also be evident if students are from families which make a living by selling in the markets. Making a living now is seen by many families as being more important than “wasting” time in the classroom.

Another cultural practice that may be impacting performance of some students in schools is the influence of the sub-culture in which these students are socialised. Part of this culture involves women/children having children as soon as they come of age in the eyes of caregivers/some dominant male in the community; the trading of their sexuality for gain; the ritual of “dress up” in Jamaican parlance. That is, many men and women prefer to invest thousands of dollars in maintaining an appearance in the eyes of their friends than on spending it on their children’s education. The return on this investment is the knowledge gained (from compliments received) that they are "striving".
Many children in environments like these have seen members of their family and friends survive without having much education. They have material things. This is the immediate gratification that these children crave – the symbols of success, now. Success in school takes too long, they believe.

There is not much that school managers can do about this situation. However, this situation may reveal to the school managers that the number one priority of these children is not the acquisition of “book knowledge” but on emulating the lifestyle of members of their community – a lifestyle which seems much more exciting than that of the school. Therefore, school managers can take the attitude that some students will do well and some won’t and leave those who are not performing to their own devices. Or, they may attempt through the counselling services that schools provide some guidance to these students.

From the three elements of the socio-cultural environment outlined above, it is evident that managers of schools face a dilemma in trying to raise the performance levels of students who are performing poorly in the education system. Managers of schools have to measure the performance of students against the background of a socio-cultural environment in which there is an interaction and intersection of poverty, crime and violence along with pervasive sub-cultural practices in some communities which privilege immediate gratification over education which many see as not having any immediate benefit.
If the school managers really understand the state of the social environment in which their schools operate they will have realistic expectations of the performance of the students in their schools. As a result, they will be able to lead their teachers in creating interventions that are appropriate to meeting the specific needs of their students. In doing this, they may see some improvement in the output of their students.

Photo above courtesy of

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Understanding the environments in which schools operate (Part 1)

Managers of schools (Principals) have to make every effort to develop an understanding of the local environments in which the schools that they manage are located. In addition, they need to understand the macro environments, that is, the socio-cultural, the economic and the political environments in which the school system operates. Also, they need to have a sound understanding of the technological environment. School managers need to have a profound understanding of all these environments if they want to be truly effective in their jobs. And their understanding of all these environments must happen simultaneously. The school managers have to “hit the ground running” as the saying goes after they are appointed. And they must take the entire staff along on this journey. Let’s now pick apart all these environments that will impact the school manager’s performance on the job.
First, the school managers need to develop an understanding of the local environments in which their schools are located. That is, they need to have a complete understanding of the nature of these communities. For example, is it a farming community? Is it an inner city community? Is it an industrial community? What are the distinct challenges that these communities face? What are the advantages? Basically, what is the way of life of the members of these communities and how can the schools assist in enriching the lives of members of these communities?

 To understand the nature of these communities, the school managers must be willing to interact with the members of the communities in which they find themselves. Their knowledge of the communities in which they work must not be based on hearsay. Interacting with members of these communities will give the school managers a sense of the communities’ hopes for their children and their views of the school and its work in the community.
Some of these members of the communities have definite ideas about what they believe the role of the school in the community ought to be. Therefore, the school managers need to listen to the views expressed by these members and agree or disagree with these views by providing evidence based on concrete sources to support their position. They must also be willing to share their vision for the school with members of the communities and try to incorporate workable ideas suggested by members of these communities into their strategic plans for their schools. The school managers will be building goodwill if the members of the communities in which they work perceive that they have an interest in their communities.

School managers in developing an understanding of the nature of the communities in which their schools are located will derive much benefit from the time that they invest in this exercise. They will get an understanding of the attendance patterns of students to school thus they will be able to devise appropriate interventions if necessary to address this issue. School managers in developing an understanding of the nature of the communities in which their schools are located will get a sense of the expectations the communities have of their schools. School managers in developing an understanding of the nature of the communities in which their schools are located will get an idea as to the lengths to which the members of the communities are willing to go to protect their schools. School managers in developing an understanding of the nature of the communities in which their schools are located will get an idea of the types of activities that they can introduce to the community and the extent to which the community members will be willing to participate in these activities. School managers in developing an understanding of the nature of the communities in which their schools are located will, hopefully, be able to empathise with their communities as they go about devising plans to develop the academic and other needs of the students and the wider community.
Thus the first assignment for new school managers (principals), whether they are totally new to the community, whether they are from the community or whether they had been working in the community for years, is to develop an understanding of the nature of the community in which the school is located. This understanding will help to build rapport with the members of the wider community  and this rapport will reduce some of the conflicts among school managers and communities which negatively impact the effectiveness of school managers who find themselves in these situations.

You may read the whole series of articles about the environments in which schools operate at the following links: the socio-cultural environment, the economic environment, the political environment, the technological environment and the spatial environment.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Devising “pie in the sky” interventions to solve problems of poor performance in the education system

Recently, I walked by a primary school. On its walls painted in bright colours were numerals and letters of the alphabet. There were also a number of pithy sayings. One of these sayings was the motto of the Ministry of Education.,“Every child can learn: Every child must learn,” which stood out in sharp relief. Teachers, students, parents and the wider community – its stakeholders – were constantly being reminded of the core aim of the school. That is, to do everything possible to foster learning in every child. However, while I was admiring the works of art, the pithy sayings, the general environment of the school, I wondered about the extent to which any or all of the stakeholders were committed to this vision which the school was championing and the extent to which they were resourced to make this vision a reality.

It is no secret that there are many children who enter the education system at the pre-primary level, continue their schooling up to the end of the secondary level from which they graduate but without having acquired much competence in reading. As a matter of fact, these children leave school not much better off academically than when they entered. This is at least fourteen years, in some cases, where children have been exposed to a wide range of curricula but have not been positively impacted by them. The question that many persons are asking is: How did these students manage to transition from one stage to the next of the education system without possessing the necessary competencies to manage at subsequent stages?

The Ministry of Education has made a bid to arrest the problem of underperformance or lack of performance of some students in the education system. If students do not pass the Grade Four Literacy Test (GFLT) after four sittings they are put into the Alternative Secondary Transitional Programme (ASTEP). ASTEP was rolled out 2011 as part of the Ministry’s Competence-based Transition Policy (2009). According to the promotional rhetoric on the Ministry’s website, it expects that the students in ASTEP “will benefit from an alternative instructional pathway specifically” ( This bit of promotional rhetoric goes on to attempt to convince us that “this strategy is designed to provide [these children] with the teaching and learning environment which will provide them with the necessary competencies for transition to the secondary level”. And, the Ministry assures us that these students will be assessed before they transition into secondary school.
To develop these competencies to aid in the transition of these students to secondary school a “special curriculum” spanning Language and Communication skills, Numeracy, Science and Social Studies, the Creative Arts, Physical Education and Personal Empowerment is offered to them. The programme lasts for two years with an additional year included for those who fail the assessment at the end of two years of the programme.

This is a new programme as it is only in its second year. However, if we ask the persons in the Ministry who are responsible for the management of this programme to tentatively assess how it is performing so far we would get responses that are noncommittal. But we would be assured that after a few kinks have been ironed out it should achieve its objectives. And we would be reminded that the success of the programme is dependent on the work of those people on the ground. That is, the teachers.
If we ask those who teach in the programme to assess the performance of the programme to date we would get a number of different perspectives because all of these teachers bring different resources to their job on the programme. An observer confides that in the first year of the programme those who taught, for the most part, came from outside the education system. Some were pre-trained teachers while others had degrees in reading, for example, but had no experience of teaching. These teachers had to be “mentored” by the “real” teachers in the system.

In one school piloting the programme, for reasons of logistics, a trained graduate is teaching on the programme. Her experience of teaching at the primary level has led her to conclude that her students are performing at the pre-primer and grade one level. And, from her background in counselling, she has observed that many, if not all, these students have behavioural problems. Furthermore, from her limited experience in administering diagnostic tests she has come to the conclusion that they all have difficulty learning.
So, if we attempt to further develop a tentative profile of these students from our observation as lay persons a number of things become evident. First, if the students targeted for the ASTEP have failed the GFLT four times, they would have been at least thirteen years old on entering the programme. However, I have learnt that the ages of students in this programme range from thirteen years to sixteen years. Second, if these students have failed the GFLT four times while other students in the same grade have been passing this means that the continuing failure of these students is as a result of a number of interrelated factors probably involving the psychological, social and economic and not just teacher incompetence.

However, teacher incompetence seems to be a major part of the formula that the Ministry has devised through ASTEP to solve the problem of poor performance of these students. This has to be if the teachers recruited to the programme, for the most part, do not possess the technical as well as the theoretical skills to make learning possible. Furthermore, according to the Ministry, “this strategy [ASTEP] is designed to provide [these children] with the teaching and learning environment which will provide them with the necessary competencies for transition to the secondary level”. However, the “teaching and learning environment” which is created for these students is not much different from that created for the other students who are mastering the primary school curricula. The major difference may be that of class size which is smaller for the students in ASTEP than for those in the regular grades.
Yet, the Ministry of Education expects that the class teacher, in spite of her/his competence or lack thereof (no training in teaching reading or special education or no training at all) should get these students mastering the ASTEP curriculum after two years. One teacher who teaches on this programme has to go back to the basics to try to give these students a foundation in the hope that learning will take place. She is teaching them phonics, the sounds that make up words, because many of these students had not developed an understanding of phonics from their earlier schooling. She is teaching them phonics in an attempt to get them to read so that they can grasp the curriculum. Many of these students have made very little progress to date so in order for them to perform creditably on their assessment after two years in the programme she is forced to teach to the test. Learning for these students, then, will still be elusive.

I am beginning to feel that politicians as well as policymakers are hung up on rhetoric. If you read the education policy documents that have been put out by the Ministry of Education, you may be fooled into unquestioningly accepting them. These documents are filled with nice sounding words which incorporate lofty goals. However, they do not quite capture the reality on the ground.

We should not totally blame the politicians for this state of affairs. As Michael Manley, former Prime Minister of Jamaica and author rightly or wrongly declared in a speech to civil servants in 1972 [it depends on one’s perspective] politicians were “conceptualisers”. They should therefore see themselves as “interpreters of the people’s dreams”. The civil servants, on the other hand, according to Manley, having experience and exposure to the practice of government have a role to bear in bringing this experience and exposure to the advice they give to the politicians as regards their conceptualisations.

Politicians today may still be “conceptualisers” but their conceptualisations have been allowed by their senior civil servants and advisors to remain in the land of conceptualisations. Conceptualisations require careful and systematic development and implementation if politicians and senior civil servants expect them to achieve their goals. And the environment in which these conceptualisations are systematically developed and implemented must be central to the deliberations. However, this is often not the case.
Are senior civil servants bringing their experience and exposure to the practice of government to bear on the advice that they give to Ministers? What is the nature of this experience and exposure? Is it that the senior civil servants and advisors properly advise the Minister on the pitfalls inherent in the approach to solve the particular problem that he wants solved but he ignores their advice because he realises that he only has five years to present “evidence” to the electorate that he deserves another term in office? Or, we can ask: On what grounds do these senior civil servants and advisors base their advice? Have they spent any time in the schools to get a first hand view of what happens there, a view that is culturally specific and one that they can measure against the ideas in the literature that they are perusing?

In trying to solve the problems in the education system politicians and policymakers need to be realistic. While they do not have an infinite amount of resources to craft comprehensive solutions to the problems, they need to be honest in their approach to solutions. Persons close to the ASTEP and its performance to date who have a modicum of intelligence know that the goals of the programme are only pipe dreams, not because they are not laudable but because the implementation of the programme is weak. Teachers are just going through the motions, doing the best they can, while waiting for the next programme to be rolled out.
The dream of the people as interpreted by the politicians that have passed through the Ministry of education seems to be every child can learn [and that] every child must learn. However, for this dream to come true senior civil servants and advisors need to forge a much closer relationship than the one that now exists with the practitioners in the schools – the teachers. These teachers can educate them about the phenomenon for which they are interested in devising solutions.


Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Performativity in the education system: Teachers

The discourses of the New Public Management (NPM) in Jamaica are bound up with those of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), in terms of the need for fiscal responsibility in government. Jamaica’s dire financial straits have sent it to the IMF once again. With the financial assistance offered by the IMF comes advice, advice which it believes if followed, will yield much benefit to the recipient country.

The advice that the IMF is proffering to the government at this time is that it needs to urgently reduce the size of the public service. The public service, it says, absorbs too much of government’s scarce resources. The government does not have the political will to do this at this time by ridding the service of some of its personnel. What it has been doing instead as regards the advice of the IMF is trying to reduce costs in the public service by identifying areas from which resources may be saved.
How are teachers being impacted? Many teachers are disheartened by the pronouncements of the Minister of Education as regards his intention to reduce costs in the education sector. This disheartenment stems from several factors.

First, teachers’ disheartenment is primarily heightened by the expressed intention by the Minister to reduce the benefits that teachers currently enjoy. Many teachers are fuming. These are benefits that they have fought for. Moreover, these benefits act as motivation to them considering the salaries that they are being paid. A major source of disheartenment for teachers is the intention of the Minister to reform Study Leave, a benefit that teachers have enjoyed for decades.  Teachers who have worked for at least two years in the schools and are permanently appointed may be granted two years study leave, one with pay and the other without pay. While these teachers are off on study leave the Ministry hires replacement teachers who like those on study leave receive regular monthly salaries. The Minister finds this practice financially onerous on government and is intent on drastically reforming it. Teachers and their union have vowed to fight to retain what is rightfully theirs. If government must reduce costs in the system, may teachers say, they can find other areas from which to cut. Of course, many teachers cannot identify one such area.
Second,  the teacher appraisal system which the Ministry of Education instituted several years ago is another source of disheartenment for some teachers. This is a process where the principal/vice principal, the Head of department and a colleague chosen by the teacher who is being assessed enter the classroom, observe the lesson that is taught by the teacher being assessed, meets with the teacher at the end of the lesson and provide critique. At the end of the process, if the teacher concurs with the feedback that is provided by the assessors, the teacher signs the appraisal document. However, over the years a number of teachers have refused to sign these documents because they perceive their assessors (excluding their chosen assessor) to be biased in their assessment.

This perception stems from issues often related to the vagaries of interpersonal relationships in the organisations. Many teachers question the qualification and competence of those who conduct the assessments. Some teachers believe that they are more qualified to do the assessments than those who actually do them. Many teachers do not view this process as a legitimate judge of their competence as a result of the dynamics of the relationships within the organisation within which they work.
Third, many teachers believe that they are being unfairly targeted and blamed by the Ministry for the poor performance of students in the education system. Instead, they blame the policies of the Ministry of Education for the low performance. However, one principal believes that schools must take at least fifty percent of the responsibility for the performance of their students. But, in the same breath, he believes that government policies do have an adverse impact on students’ performance. This is because the policies from the kindergarten to the secondary level are not sufficiently streamlined to achieve the outcomes for which the Ministry hopes. The Ministry seems to have realised this based on the pronouncements of the Minister. So, the major players in the education system seem to agree that they all contribute to the problem of underperformance in the system in some way. However, many teachers, especially those in low performing schools are not willing to accept any responsibility in this regard.

This refusal by many teachers to accept responsibility for the poor performance of their students derives from their perception that the Ministry does not try to understand what happens in schools – the nature of the students that they have to work with, the challenges faced by schools in different communities as well as the impact on performance of the lack of resources with which they work. One teacher expresses the view that the people at the Ministry sit at their desks and rely on statistics to tell them what is happening in the education system. She says she totally disregards statistics because, in her view, they are nonsense. She believes that the statistics do not reflect the reality of what happens in the school. And, she believes that education officers are ineffective because when they visit the schools they sit in with the principals and do not get to know the teachers. She questions the closeness of the relationship between the education officer and her principal seeing this as collusion to marginalise the voice of the staff. Perception!
So, when successive Ministers who may be described as transformational leaders in the sense that they seem committed to effecting change in the education system use various media to spout their rhetoric of change, there are many teachers who listen but do not hear the substantive message embedded in their rhetoric. They do not want to hear because they are angry. They feel ignored. They are not buying what the Ministers are selling. For example, the current Minister of Education has made a presentation in Parliament entitled, Time for Action (2013). The Minister, in this presentation has cited some of the successes of the education system but has also highlighted the areas which need to be improved. After elucidating each weakness in the system, he has trumpetted the rallying cry, "Time For Action!"

The teachers with whom I have spoken have listened to the Minister’s call but have not been moved. Some believe that since the education system has produced successes we should focus on these successes and not on the negatives. These teachers believe that in focusing on the negatives we discount the efforts of those who have done well in the system. Other teachers are fixated on the threatened reductions of some of the benefits that they now enjoy. These teachers believe that the Minister needs to do his research. He needs to try to understand the reasons why teachers in the past, were granted the benefits that they now enjoy. Other teachers are at odds with what they term the lack of accuracy of the Minister’s statements as regards issues relating to the leave entitlements, days worked and so on. The bottom line? The Minister is talking nonsense.
Based on these views that teachers have expressed, it is evident that there is no urgency on the part of many of them to take action to change the status quo. Many do not take any responsibility for poor performance even if their principals are willing to do so. Many have little respect for systems of accountability like appraisals that have been introduced into the schools. Many teachers are stressed. But not because of any added effort that they have exerted to achieve transformation in themselves as regards their work ethic. They are not consumed by the job in their desire to achieve improved output. They are in the system to teach. As long as they teach, and they are sure that they do teach, they are doing their jobs.

Monday, 18 November 2013

Performativity in the education system: school leaders

If we think of [public sector] performativity as a process that works on us through the discourses of the New Public Management (NPM), discourses that, at the end of their work on us, leave us wanting to be more productive than we have been before then we only have to examine public sector organisations to find out the extent to which the concept of performativity is a useful explanatory tool for the work ethic that is evident in these organisations. Let us do so, then, by focusing on the school. Within this organisation, principals are caught between two major forces – traditionalism and change. The extent to which principals grab hold of either force will determine how they perform their jobs in the current education system.  
What do I mean by traditionalism? This is the status quo. That is, the way things have always been done before. This is behaviour that has been learnt, practised and passed on for centuries to successive groups of workers who pass through the doors of government agencies.

 In Jamaica, principals usually (but not always) enter the teaching profession as teachers before they progress up the ranks to being appointed principals. The principal’s job is usually to maintain the smooth functioning of the school. The principal does this by presiding over devotions, staff meetings and school functions; attends meetings arranged by the Ministry and other powerful stakeholders; relies heavily on his/her vice principals for much administrative support and present herself/himself on the corridors and grounds of the school from time to time as a show of being in charge. He/she also performs other miscellaneous functions.

 Today, the principal’s role has been vastly reconfigured. He is now required to display “real” management in an environment of chronic economic decline. And, it is not a change that many principals relish, though not many aspirants will turn down an appointment to this position. While principals are happy to be in charge of schools enjoying the status and other benefits that come with the position, they long for a bygone era when principals had the autonomy to administrate as they saw fit without the “nonsense” of innovativeness and accountability that government has been spouting lately.

One school principal, writing in the Sunday Gleaner of June 2, 2013 highlights, what seems to him to be, an untenable situation. He is peeved that the amount of resources that the Ministry of Education allocates to schools each year is inadequate to do the schools’ business for that period. Furthermore, he is really peeved at the [temerity], my word, of the Ministry to expect schools to engage in fund raising activities. He seems to hold the view still accepted by many that government should provide adequate resources for the administration of publicly owned educational institutions.

 This principal is not alone in his ire. Another principal has opined that his father did not send him to school to learn to be a fundraiser. He went to teachers’ college to learn to teach. His current job as principal he defines as doing things that fit into a very narrow view of the practice of administration. The ideal scenario, for him, would play out like this: government provides the resources for schools, principals administrate the resources.

However, government for more than twenty years has been gradually reducing the amount of resources that it has provided to schools. The growing poverty of the state which has not been helped by the global financial crisis has been cited as the cause for this state of affairs. As such, except for primary education, the government has asked parents to bear some of the costs of their children’s education through the “cost – sharing” programme.

Principals have, for a long time, been asked to be efficient (to do more with less). Central to being efficient is the need to be innovative. This idea of being innovative is clearly nonsense to some school leaders, an idea which they have refused to accept.  They still believe that government (this amorphous figure) is responsible for the provision of public education and it must, in spite of economic constraints, continue to provide resources which are “adequate” so that the schools can function effectively. The principals seem to be saying that the low levels of government provision to the education sector [the education sector gets the largest share of the budget] is the reason for the poor performance in the sector.

 Another bit of “nonsense” against which a number of principals are rebelling is accountability.  As regards schools, the Ministry of Education seems to expect principals like other managers in the public sector to function along the continuum of accountability. First, the Ministry seems to expect that principals will give an account of their stewardship of their schools, probably as yearly reports to the schools' Boards of Management. Second, the Ministry seems to expect that principals will be judged as regards their stewardship of the schools they manage. Third, the Ministry seems to expect that principals [and their staff] will be responsive to the needs of their stakeholders. Fourth, and herein lies the rub, the Ministry seems to expect that principals will take personal responsibility for the performance of their schools.

 Many principals are asking why they should take responsibility for the performance of their schools. After all, there are a myriad of factors that impact performance in schools. The Ministry knows this but it does not provide the necessary resources for them to be effective.

The Ministry is probably quite frustrated that more principals have not accepted the challenges of government’s new expectations of them as one principal with whom I spoke has done. This principal believes that the solution to the problem of low performance in the education system is simple. The solution is “management and the commitment to hold persons accountable”. But, he believes, that this has not been part of the cultural dynamic of the country. This is so “because we have not had the kind of leadership generally in the country that recognises productivity and holds workers accountable”. He believes that widespread improvement in productivity in the country will only be realised if leaders are committed. As he says, “if you, as an individual, do not believe in performance and accountability, then, you are not going to drive that.  If a Board [of Education] does not believe in performance and accountability they are not going to drive that...”
The leadership of this principal has wrought tremendous improvement in all aspects of the school he manages. He is happy with the progress his school has made so far and has great plans for its further improvement. It has been hard work for many of the members of staff who have not been exposed to this style of management in the school system before. They, however, acknowledge and welcome the transformation that has been wrought in the school, not the process, so much.

The Minister of Education recognises that transforming the education system from what exists is going to be a very slow process. While contributing to the 2013 Sectoral Debate in Parliament, after calling all the stakeholders in the education sector to action in working to positively transform the education system, found it prudent to admit this fact.
This slowness in the implementation of policies is to be expected as the bureaucratic norms of operating in government are still entrenched in the system. These bureaucratic norms are what the process of “modernising” the public sector is trying to change. However, the Minister also needs to channel his spirit of innovation, something that leaders of change have been urging public sector managers do, into crafting a methodology that may be effective in bringing about the desired changes he believes will resuscitate the education system.

In the meantime, the call for change and the threat of sanctions is placing a lot of stress on many principals. It is not the kind of stress that is associated with these principals trying to make themselves more productive than they ever were before. It is not the kind of stress that brings satisfaction and pride because they have been efficient and effective. The source of this stress is frustration and anger. The Ministry has given them baskets to carry water, they believe.
The idea of “buy in” appears in much of the literature on the NPM. It is not farfetched. It is only when principals “buy into” the rhetoric for change in the education system that they will be able to convincingly sell it to teachers, students, parents and the community. A number of principals have “bought” the idea of the need for change in the education system and have a clear idea of how to go about implementing this change. Some principals have "bought" the idea of the need for change in the education system but have no clue as to what to do with it. Many principals are still inspecting the “goods”. Some principals, however, have totally rejected the idea.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Performativity and Administrators/Managers in the Ministry of Education

I imagine that the Ministry of Education has periodic reviews where, as a team, it assesses its achievements over the period under review and charts the way forward for the next period.

Consider the following hypothetical scenario:

The permanent secretary convenes a meeting with Heads of Departments. The Minister may also be invited to the meeting. If the Minister is a part of the meeting, protocol demands that he gets the first chance to put something substantive on the table. The permanent secretary being the manager of the entire ministry is the chairperson of this meeting. She gets through the preliminaries and invites the Minister to make a few comments. The Minister thanks them for having him there then launches into outlining some of the issues that’s been on his mind. He reminds the attendees at this meeting about the dire economic strait that the country is in, a state that is being exacerbated by the global economic crisis. He draws their attention to the need to reduce costs in the Ministry per the dictates of the Ministry of Finance (MoF). He tells them not to feel “picked on” because the MoF expects the same economy from all ministries. He tells them that in spite of the constraints that they face – low salaries, un-ideal working conditions – they must be commended for the effort that they have put in to date to keep the education system going. However, he says, there are still areas of their work that they must try to improve. He pauses, thinks about what he is going to say next, then with resolve tells them that they still need to work to improve their responsiveness to the public who continue to complain about poor service in spite of the efforts that the Ministry had put in place to address this very issue. He concludes his presentation by urging them to go back to their departments and continue the good work they are doing, but to aim at improving the way they deal with the public.

 The permanent secretary concurs with the Minister’s statements saying that they, indeed, need to improve their systems and procedures that they use to interact with their stakeholders. She then calls on each head of department to give an account of he/his stewardship. Each head starts his/her presentation by thanking the Minister for his comments but note that they are not always to blame when their stakeholders complain about the service that they provide. The public, they say, can be quite mean and sometimes it literally requires the patience of Job to deal with them. Furthermore, they are doing the best they can, and they understand that resources are limited, but it is just too difficult to function without adequate resources. They are putting that on the table with the hope that the Minister will use his influence to source more resources for them, they say.
And, like the story of the deployment of the talents in the Bible, each recipient of “talents” presents the returns on their “investments”. Some claim to achieve much, some not so much.

 The minister and permanent secretary, in turn, comment on the presentations, serving out commendations where these are due and encouraging those whose efforts had not borne much fruit to seek out “new” ways of operating. The permanent secretary then presents the way forward. She reminds them of the principles under which government is operating: issues of governance are important, now, she tells them, so we have to work on that; we, all of us, must strive to be effective and efficient; we have to reduce costs; accountability is important. You know from time to time the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) calls us to Parliament to give an account of our stewardship. We have not been doing well in this regard, she tells them, so the next time they call us we want to be prepared. So, let us do our best; and remember, she tells them, we need to improve our service to the public. When members of the public complain about the service that we provide to them they give the Ministry a bad name. That is not good.

 They set a date for the next meeting then the permanent secretary wraps up the meeting. After socialising for a while, they return to their departments to do what they have always done.

When we examine the issue of performance in the education system, we tend to focus on schools. What percent of students enter primary school with the requisite skills to master the Grade one curriculum? What percent of students pass the Grade Four Literacy Test (GFLT)? What percent of students perform satisfactorily in the Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT) to be awarded a place in the school of their choice? What percent of students pass the Grade Nine Achievement Test (GNAT)? What percent of students leave schools with five or more subjects including Mathematics and English in the Caribbean Secondary Examination Certificate (CSEC) examination?  To what extent do the schools add value to the resources with which the students come into the institutions? The Ministry of Education has been using the answers to these questions to rank the performance of schools as either, being Outstanding, Good, Satisfactory or Poor.

 When we examine the issue of performance in the education system we must widen the focus to include the performance of the Ministry of Education (MoE) as well as schools. Because, the way the MoE functions at the top of the education system is crucial to the effectiveness of schools. Teachers seem to realise that their effectiveness is bound up with that of the MoE. For example, when I asked a number of teachers to outline their role in the education system, among the replies that I received was that of ensuring that the mandate of the MoE, as well as the school’s mission statement, was carried out.

So, how does the MoE maintain the communication link with the schools to ensure that its goals for the education system are met? One principal, writing as a guest columnist in the Sunday Gleaner of June 2, 2013 paints a dismal picture of the Ministry’s stewardship where schools are concerned. His article seems to be in response to the Ministry’s continuing inspection of schools. In his article succinctly entitled, “Inspect Education Ministry, too”, this principal highlights a number of areas of concern to schools:

·         Tardiness in the Ministry - late dissemination of information, teachers and school leaders receiving information to attend meetings or deadlines to submit documents on the day before and even on the day of the event, sometimes long after the event has passed; endless waiting after sending written communication to the ministry to have projects approved, often no response from regional offices even after valiant attempts to follow up, projects that would benefit students stalled or abandoned out of frustration; Teachers having to wait in excess of three years for refunds after studying without taking study leave

·         Poor customer service – teachers are asked to wait up to two years after all documents are sent in before they are finally appointed, many times documents cannot be found after they have been submitted

·         Inadequate financial resources allocated by the ministry to carry out the daily responsibility of a public school for a term or academic year

·         Ministry divesting its financial responsibility to schools – the ‘loading’ off of financial responsibility on the teachers and school leaders – teachers engaging in fund raising activities

 This is one perspective of the performance of the MoE in 2013. But, for almost thirty years the government has been championing strategies to modernise the entire public service. This reform has been ongoing under the banner of the New Public Management (NPM). NPM is basically the label given to the reforms that governments have been making to their public service over the last few decades. Several discourses have been developed around the NPM. We can find within these discourses concerns with issues of productivity; effectiveness, efficiency, economy, accountability, transparency and responsiveness of government as well as the restructuring of government agencies; emphasis being placed on managing as opposed to administrating. Also, a key element in these discourses is performance based accountability particularly through contracts; and competitive mechanisms such as contracting-out and internal markets (Aucoin 1990; Hood 1991)

 As regards performance based accountability through contracts, one of the tenets of the NPM, Jamaica is still lagging in its implementation. Only four Permanent Secretaries are working on contractual terms (Osiei and Imhoff-Nwasike, (undated). The others are permanently employed members of the public service enjoying the benefits of this status. And those permanent secretaries on contractual terms, at the expiration of their three year contracts, may be permanently appointed. As regards, the MoE, most of the managers will be on permanent appointments rather than on contractual terms. This may affect their approach to the job.

But, based on what we know about the MoE to date and, based on what we know about NPM reforms that the government has been engaged in for a number of decades now, how are workers being impacted by the discourses of the New Public Management (NPM)? If performativity may be described as a process where signs, for example words, have the power to shape reality then how has the reality of those who work in the Ministry of Education been shaped by these discourses. How has practice changed? How have the administrators in government transitioned to being managers? What are the psychological manifestations of these discourses on them?

S. J. Ball (2012), renowned educator, researcher and writer, in his book Global Education INC. New policy networks and the neo-liberal imaginary, mentions what I refer to as the “psychological manifestations” of performance based accountability on actors in the education enterprise. These “psychological manifestations” he refers to as being the result of the process of performativity.

Performativity is a pervasive phenomenon. According to Ball, in our activities at work,  performativity demands that we:

make ourselves more effective, [that we] work on ourselves and [demands that we] feel guilty or inadequate if we do not [...].  Performativity is enacted through measures and targets against which we are expected to position ourselves but often in ways that also produce uncertainties about how we should organise ourselves within our work [...] Performativity ‘works’ most powerfully when it is in our heads and our souls. That is, when we do it ourselves, when we take responsibility for working hard, faster and better, thus ‘improving’ our ‘output’, as part of our sense of personal worth and the worth of others [...] Indeed, performativity works best when we come to want for ourselves what is wanted from us, when our moral sense of our desires and ourselves are aligned with its pleasures (p. 30).

According to this view performativity is a state of being that is brought about by the discourse, in this case, about NPM and specifically that element of the discourse which focuses on performance based accountability in government agencies. It is a cultural imperative that seeks to change the status quo. That is, it is a state of being where low productivity is no longer seen as being normal in government. Therefore, it is a state of being as regards the individual and his/her interaction with his work within the context of the government agency.
So, for discourses of NPM to realise the action of productivity i.e. improved performance in the education sector, which is the area of government with which we are concerned, the process will play out as follows: The government, by way of the responsible Minister, makes an utterance regarding its policy direction with regard to a particular issue. This utterance as part of “the way forward” is instituted in the organisation. Managers do their jobs by ensuring that the policy imperatives are implemented. They [should] have targets against which their performance is judged and which provide the basis for sanctions. Sanctions are strictly enforced. This puts pressure on managers to constantly improve their performance. They feel a sense of guilt when they underperform. As this new standard of performance is constantly reinforced practitioners “buy into” its tenets and begin to regulate their lives by these. They become the embodiment of what was envisaged – high performing, self regulating, accountable individuals who see their work ethic as being natural. Their goals and the organisations’ goals are now aligned. Performativity as a process is complete. But performativity is not “in any simple sense a technology of oppression; it is also one of satisfactions and rewards, at least for some (ibid, p. 30).

However, as the hypothetical scenario presented above indicates, as well as the weaknesses in the Ministry of education that that principal outlines, the state of being where the achievement of results on the job is a driving, consuming force and, where one’s sense of self is bound up with the job has not yet been achieved to any extent in the Ministry of Education. Performativity, at least in impacting members of the Ministry of Education to adapt to the changing environmental imperatives in government, is still a work in progress.