I am happy that the ministerial portfolios of Education and Youth have been placed together once again. If for no other reason, it gives me hope that the fire in the student movement will be rekindled and students’ participation in school governance will be secured. Recent conversations with some school administrators has lead me to believe that there are still many that do not believe that students have rights. There are more still, who believe that the major customers of the education system, the students, should have no say in the institution’s governance. On the contrary, the Education Regulations of 1980 guarantee students’ participation in the governance of their school at the secondary and tertiary levels. Yes, students have a seat at the table of the board of governance in all public secondary and tertiary educational institutions. Believe it or not, All-Age Schools (which we are still waiting on to be phased out) should also have a student representative on their board.
Recently I was contacted by a students’ council staff adviser (teacher) at a high school in St. Ann, who was seeking my guidance on a matter. We will call her Ms. Marsh. Ms. Marsh advised me that the school’s board chairman had called a meeting. Only on the day of the meeting was the students’ council president (let’s call her Christina) made aware of the meeting. Nonetheless, knowing that she was to participate in board meetings, Christina made her way to the meeting room. When Christina stepped into the meeting, a member of the board told her that she could not attend the meeting. Christina turned to her principal and asked why she was being asked to leave, when she is the elected student representative. The principal responded that he doesn’t think this is a meeting that she can attend. She was pretty much told it was a ‘no student zone.’ Christina left the meeting and found her staff adviser, Ms. Marsh. When Ms. Marsh went to the principal and gave the principal all the information she had about the students’ council’s participation, the principal said the NCE had not advised him of the president’s place on the board. Christina was shut out, and the meeting proceeded without her. Just to be sure that this was not a special committee meeting, I asked the teacher. She told me it was a regular board meeting. As you may have guessed by now, shutting the student representative out was wrong.
National Council on Education
The National Council on Education (NCE) was established in 1993 by the National Council on Education Act. It is a corporate body whose main role main role is to provide policy advice to the Minister of Education. Their mission statement is “To provide leadership in stimulating, advising and promoting consensus in the development of educational policies to support the nation’s pursuit of a comprehensive, coherent and consistent system of education.” The NCE has the mandate to, among other things;
- Nominate suitable persons to the Boards of Management of public educational institutions
- Train Board members and principals in the management and governance of schools.
Jamaica’s Education Regulations state clearly that “Every public education institution shall be administered by a school board.” According to Section 89.1 of the Regulations, the Board is “responsible to the Minister for the administration of the institution for which it has been appointed.” School boards are responsible for the conduct, supervision and effective operation of the institution. Further, the Regulations give the composition of these boards. The school’s principal is always a member of the board. Some board members are appointed by the Minister of Education, on the nomination of the NCE. Others are appointed, having been elected by key stakeholder groups in the school. The nominated and appointed members vary according to the type of school. In the case of government-run All Age Schools, there are two nominated members, including the board chairman. The elected members are to include one member elected by the Student Council in the case of an all-age school. In the case of public (government) secondary schools, the regulations give the following directive:
The Board shall consist of not more than fifteen persons appointed by the Minister as follows:
A. The Principal
B. Nominated members: Four members including the Chairman nominated by the National Council on Education.
C. Elected Members: Seven members elected as follows: one by the academic staff; one by the administrative and clerical staff; one by the ancillary staff; one by the Student Council; one by the Old Students’ Association; one by the Parent Teachers’ Association; one by a recognized local community group.
D. Co-opted members : Three (3) members nominated by the Board for their expertise.
I recall attending a UNDP special meeting at the UN Headquarters, where participants were asked to present on strategies to engage youth in democratic governance processes. I was pleased to point out that Jamaican law actually safeguards student participation at the board of governance level in public schools. Jamaican young people have rights safeguarded in local laws and policy – Education Act (1980), Child Care & Protection Act (2004), National Youth Policy (1994). This is not the case all around the world. However, when I note how student participation is often treated with scant regard, I recognise that we can do more. Notwithstanding that, let me tell you about the guaranteed seat that students have.
Students’ Council bodies are given legitimacy by the Education Regulations which state that
“Every public education institution shall have a students’ council, which shall consist of elected representatives of students with at least one staff adviser, elected by students.”
It goes further. Subsection 32, p.16 points out that;
“Through the student councils at the secondary and tertiary levels the student shall have the right to –
- Democratically elect their representatives;
- Have representation on the board of the institution;
- Meet with the principal, and staff or both, on any matter affecting the students’ interest;
- Hold regular meetings to conduct business on their behalf, but with due regard to the smooth functioning of the institution.”
Additionally, “Where the principal suspends a student he shall forthwith – Give notice of the suspension to the student council and the parent or guardian; and make a report to the Board, stating the reasons for the suspension.” I can tell you, this is not always done. So, no, the teachers cannot be the ones to choose the class representatives or the student who sits on the board.
National Secondary Students’ Council
Sometimes the case is that there are adults who are not ensuring that students get their rights. At other times, there are students who are simply unaware of the rights they have. For years, the National Secondary Students’ Council (NSSC) has been working to ensure students know their rights. With the support and guidance of Youth Empowerment Officers in the Ministry of Youth, the NSSC executive has been providing capacity building to students’ council representatives across the island. The NSSC is the umbrella organisation that represents all public secondary school students’ council. The organisation has been through several periods of dormancy. I must therefore commend former Minister of Youth and Culture, Lisa Hanna, for breathing life back into the council. It is customary that the NSSC has audience with the Minister of Education and participates in policy making processes. They advocate for the rights of students in many places. As a former president of the NSSC, I sat on the board and two committees of the NCE.
The reality is, with all their best efforts, the young students cannot protect their spaces of participation on their own. The school leaders, and all adults wielding power, should give youth a SEAT.
Young people are valuable innovators and agents of change, and their contribution should be actively supported, solicited and regarded as part of supporting democratic governance. Promoting the participation of young people requires multiple approaches. The first of which is a rights-based approach. Young people have rights grounded in the UN System – UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Our high school youth have the right to participate. They have the right to express their opinions and to be heard. (I would be interested to hear their opinions on some of these school rules.) They have the right to have a say in any matter affecting their social, economic, religious and political life. They have the right to information and freedom of association.
In a society where we talk so much about youth voter apathy, it would do us good to engage young people from an early stage. Their participation, in students’ council elections, running a council and having representation on the board, can help bring about the realization of all their rights. It can also help to prepare them for active roles in society. It is true that many of our current political leaders were active participants in student governments.
So, I am happy that we have a Ministry of Education and Youth. I am happy, too, that the Minister of Education, Information and Youth, Senator the Honourable Ruel Reid, is a former chairman of the board of the NCE. When I sat on the board as a high school student, Ruel Reid encouraged my participation. I hope that as Minister, he will support the strengthening of students’ councils across the island. I ask the Merris Murray-led NCE be more vigilant in ensuring that elected student representatives get their seat, as full and equal members of school boards. I hope that board chairmen and members will be clear that they cannot shut the student representatives out, like they did to Christina. I further hope that those students who sit on boards will be active participants, consult with their student bodies, and truly represent the views of their constituents.