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"What is the role of the Education Minister?"

Monday 13 September 2021

"What is the role of the Education Minister?"


Education has, for many years, been an ideological battleground in most countries around the world.

From totalitarian regimes to religious fundamentalism, all recognise the influence education has on a populace.

In the UK, the 1970s saw the demise of the grammar/secondary school system, with comprehensives taking its place. The 1990s saw the introduction of league tables and, later on, in the noughties, the marginalisation of school-assessed examinations in favour of a return to one-off exams.

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Pictured: "When, as Education Minister, Deputy Maçon rejected Deputy Perchard's seemingly shoe-in application for the vacant post of Assistant Education Minister in favour Deputy Wickenden he said his reason for doing so was that he wanted a 'generalist'."

Education policy, once written by non-political academics, is now steered by political thinktanks. But Jersey does not have any such bodies. It merely follows England's lead. Scotland, Northern Ireland and, latterly, Wales, all have their own distinct 'education systems'. So why not Jersey?

When, as Education Minister, Deputy Maçon rejected Deputy Perchard's seemingly shoe-in application for the vacant post of Assistant Education Minister in favour Deputy Wickenden he said his reason for doing so was that he wanted a 'generalist'.

When questioned about the reasons for not voting for Deputy Ward as Education Minister, one member of the government commented that 'I don't think one's career choice necessarily makes for an appropriate political portfolio, in fact, the reverse may be true as one can be too close'.

If specialists are not welcomed for ministerial portfolios, what skills are required of the incumbents and do the present occupiers have the necessary attributes? What is the role of the Education Minister?

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Pictured: "If specialists are not welcomed for ministerial portfolios, what skills are required of the incumbents and do the present occupiers have the necessary attributes? What is the role of the Education Minister?"

Is s/he merely an administrator, a conduit between government and the department? A glorified paper-pusher? Or does the job require something different altogether?

One wonders what knowledge, most of our politicians have of education policy outside of headline examination percentages? Does it matter to them what our children are taught and how they are educated?

If our ministers do not have the expertise/knowledge then are we not in a situation where top civil servants dictate policy?

If our elected representatives lack knowledge and understanding of pedagogy, curriculum issues and other aspects essential to schooling how can they know what is in the best interests of the island without buying in expensive consultants from off-island? And how do they know if they are getting value for their money?

In his resignation letter of November 2020, the Children's Minister, Senator Mezec observed; "Who runs Jersey, the elected government or the Civil Service?"

This echoes a comment made in February 2020 by Deputy Vallois, then Education Minister, who commented; "Anyone should never become a States member if they had an ambition or mind of their own."

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Pictured: "Education on Jersey has been grossly underfunded for years (one of the lowest in the world), inequality is wider than it has ever been (no politician that wants to be elected will touch this hot potato) and staffing, including morale, is worrying low..."

One can see why our civil servants would not want any Tom, Dick or Harriet interfering with the prospect of ripping up what has gone before and starting afresh every four years but are things about to change as political parties draw up their own policies?

Education on Jersey has been grossly underfunded for years (one of the lowest in the world), inequality is wider than it has ever been (no politician that wants to be elected will touch this hot potato) and staffing, including morale, is worrying low (a recent FoI has shown that since 2018 almost sixty teachers have left the profession). The curriculum is being narrowed and digital education is still in its infancy. A lot for potential policy writers to consider that's for sure.

There has long been talk of a Jersey Curriculum, indeed it does exist, but it is limited to snippets of history and geography with a smattering of Jèrriais. All are valuable from a cultural perspective but do they add much to the skills required for a competitive economy? And what of S.T.E.M.?

Many in government barely know what the acronym stands for, let alone what it entails. Even our top educational civil servants misunderstand its meaning, choosing to narrow the curriculum in favour of Science, English and Maths when the concept has more to do with pedagogy than subject matter.

If an individual or political party wanted to embrace S.T.E.M it would involve considerable professional development across all schools and a sea change in the present management structure within schools and the department as a whole.

In 2014 Justin Donovan was appointed as Director of Education. He came with a mandate to improve school performance. Our present Director of Education, Sean O'Regan has kept a steady hand on that tiller, lauding the success of the 'School Improvement Service'.

Some see it as a thing of great beauty, others as a monster that has ripped the heart out of teaching. Is this what our business leaders want/need, a workforce adept at rote learning but lacking in most other cognitive skills?

Many other countries have moved on from performance related learning, leaving Jersey's education system lagging, years behind. It will be interesting to see what policies political parties and independents come up with.

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