Some school administrators have been finding various means of plucking money from the pockets of students, and Education Minister Ruel Reid is not pleased.
"This Government's position is free access to public education, and there ought not to be any fees or any other creative barriers used to prevent and deny our children their right to free public education," Reid told The Sunday Gleaner.
He said that the moves by the schools to force students to pay would be a breach of the education ministry's policy, which bans the mandatory payment of auxiliary fees, with schools allowed to charge an approved rate for some services.
The education ministry has also increased the subvention to secondary schools across the island, and Reid said that parents who are being asked to make mandatory contributions should report this to the ministry if they are not getting any redress from the school's board.
But that has not stopped some school administrators who hit students with charges such as a fine for those who arrive late.
$50 LATE FEE
At the Corporate Area-based St Andrew Technical High School (STATHS), for example, students are asked to pay $50 once they arrive at school after 8:10 a.m.
During a visit by our news team to the Spanish Town Road-based school last Wednesday, scores of students were seen handing over cash to a female security guard and the school's dean of discipline, who sat at the entrance to ensure that none of those who were late were admitted without paying.
Both lamented the lack of change as the students handed over as much as $1,000 to pay the $50 fine. One male student who tentatively handed over his $1,000 note was overheard declaring, "This is my lunch money for the rest of the week, ennuh."
One student told our news team that if they did not pay the fine, they were sent home. "Sometimes is my friends I ask to pay for me," said the student.
When one student declared that he didn't have the money, the dean of discipline was overheard instructing him to "go back home". The student, however, insisted, "Miss, a far mi live".
A mother who turned up to seek a transfer for her child was overheard asking if the students had to pay for being late.
"We are very serious when it comes to discipline. Once you are late and it's after 8:10, you pay a $50 fine," responded the security guard.
That position was endorsed by Rayon Simpson, the school's principal, who told our news team that there is a robust and comprehensive policy in the education ministry and at the school to address punctuality and poor attendance.
POLICY EXTENDS TO STAFF
According to Simpson, two consecutive inspection reports by the National Education Inspectorate pointed out that attendance and punctuality are twin problems for the school for both staff and students.
"This policy is not confined to students only, but extends to members of faculty and support staff as well. When members of staff are consistently late for duties and work, recommendations are made to the (education ministry) in August of each year for a fine to be deducted from their salaries," said Simpson.
"We reject the notion of 'soliciting funds from students'. It has been made clear to all stakeholders that no student is required to recompense a fine or face late detention, providing they arrive at school within a 40-minute grace period.
"School begins at 7:25 a.m. Where a student is more than 40 minutes late and he or she is unable to recompense a fine, he or she may opt for a detention. We accept legitimate excuses from students or parents. You see, we know who the latecomers are, and we believe we have a duty to adequately deter them from choosing the debilitating phenomenon as a way of life," added Simpson as he said that the school does not have a policy of sending home the latecomers.
"This is not to happen, and if it has happened in the past, it will not recur because we have made this clear to all stakeholders. Students have the option of taking a detention."
PTA DEFENDS FINE
President of the parent-teacher association (PTA) at STATHS, Robert Mattocks, defended the decision of the school's administrators.
He argued that the fine was being collected to deter students from arriving late and goes towards the school's welfare programmes.
According to Mattocks, the decision to collect the fine was made by the board after consultation with various stakeholders, including the PTA, in January.
"To be honest, if by any chance you get the stats on the lateness from that time (January) to this time now, you will see more than an 80 per cent improvement in terms of attendance. Even the teachers have actually started saying 'yes, it is a great initiative because they can actually now teach a full class in the morning," said Mattocks.
He said that the students who pay are sometimes the ones who benefit from the school's welfare programmes.
"That same $50 that they pay, it goes right back to the welfare committee, and that welfare committee takes care of the welfare programme, and it also goes back into the bus fare programme because we do give them bus fare in the evenings to go home."
Some schools have found even more creative ways to raise funds, purportedly for their welfare programmes, by introducing a raft of 'special days', which requires students to pay.
The schools have instituted days when students are required to wear jeans, hats, glasses, and sneakers and are asked to pay as much as $100 if they wear these items and $200 if they don't.