Petrina Francis, Staff Reporter
Opposition Spokesman on Education, Andrew Holness, says if the Government is to introduce compulsory school attendance, it would have to remove school fees and strengthen the social welfare programmes.
On Sunday, Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller announced at the 68th annual conference of the People's National Party (PNP) that her Government was moving towards compulsory school attendance.
Currently, the national rate for school attendance is 78 per cent.
"How you going to learn if you are not in school? This is an abuse of children's rights," Mrs. Simpson Miller declared.
"We cannot allow poor people to be punished because their economic and social circumstances prevent them from sending their children to school. So special provisions are being made to deal with cases of real hardships," Mrs. Simpson Miller said.
"If there is an obligatory fee, attendance cannot be compulsory," Mr. Holness told The Gleaner.
According to him, even if legislation exists, parents could argue that they could not afford to pay the tuition fee to send their children to school.
Meanwhile, Hopeton Henry, president of the Jamaica Teachers' Association (JTA), said compulsory education was "a good move, but there has to be a policy framework and the streamlining of the PATH (Programme for the Advancement of Health and Educa-tion) programme." Sylvester Anderson, president of the National Parent-Teacher Association, echoed similar sentiments.
"It is a good move, but it depends on what policy is going to be put in place to ensure that compulsory attendance will work," Mr. Anderson said.
Maxine Henry-Wilson, Minister of Education and Youth, said the Government is in the process of reviewing legislation in order to implement compulsory school attendance.
In 1982, compulsory attendance was introduced in two pilot parishes, St. Thomas and Trelawny, by then Minister of Education, Dr. Mavis Gilmore.
Giving Parliament a progress report on the programme in June, 1983, Dr. Gilmore said there had been notable improvements in attendance in the first term, with the turnout at schools in both parishes going to as high as 85 per cent, where before the rate was less than 65 per cent.
She admitted that the attendance rate had fallen off during the second term, but remained above what obtained prior to the introduction of the programme.
That effort was, however, not sustained. UNICEF, in a 1999 report, revealed that while almost every child in Jamaica was enrolled at primary school level from the age of six, full attendance 'remains a challenge'.
Financial problems and illnesses prevented 43.2 per cent and 25.5 per cent of households respectively, from sending their children to school for some period of time, the UNICEF report stated, adding that children of the poor were 'over-represented among the absentee population'.