Students will be relieved of being accommodated in hazardous facilities which presently predisposes them to ill-health,” said Saint Lucia’s Prime Minister Stephenson King, during his 2009/2010 budget presentation under the heading “Education.” The PM was at the time, speaking about the “Basic Education Enhancement Project,” which he said would “contribute to breaking the cycle of inter-generational poverty.”
For all the so called “strides” made in education here and the pontification time and time again of Sir Arthur Lewis’ quotes about education being the way out of poverty, the annual allocation for education remains a paltry sum. In fact, the system itself has not developed sufficiently and effectively since independence, to bridge the gap between the haves and have nots. And while Christians believe that all men are created equally, the same cannot be said for our schools. While some parents too, are fooled into believing some educators when they say “don’t worry it is not the school it is the child, if they want to learn they will learn,” others have come to realize that some schools are doomed to fail when they do not get adequate support, facilities and even teachers, from a system which continues to marginalize them.
Having said all of this, I was hardly surprised at the reaction to my article “The Forgotten Ones” which used the “George Charles Secondary School” as a microcosm of what exists in our present education system. “Hardly surprised,” not so much with regards to the overwhelmingly positive feedback it received on our website and elsewhere, but by the knee-jerk reaction by some teachers and others at the Ministry of Education. Oh, by the way my recorder still has plenty of space for the counter arguments some have proposed. Call me! The George Charles School has been around now for 20 years, meaning that they have had ten year doses of two administrations and nothing much has changed. So this can never be about anything partisan, but about a rotten system which continues to fail our children.
And so those with veiled and coloured ambitions would obviously fail to see the merits of the article and maybe too, they are the same ones turning a blind eye on the hundreds of children doomed by poverty, attending school on empty stomachs each day and walking into dilapidated classes which exposes them to hazards and the “ill- health conditions” that the PM spoke of.
In last year’s budget presentation the PM also spoke of the implementation of a project to provide all Grade 6 students (common entrance students) with a computer. Similar sentiments were expressed this Thursday by King (during a ceremony for the final phase of a Primary School Computer program—more on that next week). He spoke about ongoing negotiations to equip every student with a computer, without committing to a specific time frame. As noble, ideal and well intentioned this is, it will mean nothing when we still have difficulties getting our children (in certain parts on the island) to and from school and when we still have hungry kids on our school benches. It is said that empty vessels make the most noise and maybe the noise and violence we hear, stems from hungry belly rumblings which are deafening even to a point where we ignore them.
Last week I spoke with Dr Didacus Jules, the former PS in the last administration and now the chief registrar with the Barbados based CXC. We discussed a range of issues on education, but more specifically Universal Secondary Education and the inequalities existing within the school system here.
I first asked Dr Jules about the timing of the introduction of Universal Secondary Education (USE) and the thinking behind the initiative five years ago.
“USE had been on the agenda of most Caribbean States for at least 10 years preceding St Lucia’s own movement in that direction,” Dr Jules told the STAR. “In the 21st Century, the experience of countries like Barbados shows that universal secondary education was the educational requirement for successful transition to a service economy. It is now felt that universal tertiary education is the necessity for successful insertion into the information economy. It was recognized that the competitiveness of Saint Lucia’s human resources would be constrained if we did not provide this upgrading.”
“Were we ready for it?” I then asked. His response: “I do not buy this argument about “being ready for it. The education deficit is a major contributor to inequality among people as well as among nations. The most educated societies are the ones which now have the competitive edge in the global arena. It is interesting also that this argument about “readiness” has historically been used by the power brokers who do not want the status quo to change—the ruling elites in the early 19th Century argued that the Caribbean masses were not ready for democracy because they were too uneducated; they also argued against universal primary education saying that to provide this level of education to everyone was wasteful because the society did not need so many people at that level!”
The plan for Universal Secondary Education here, Jules says, was not just about the construction of new schools but involved paying attention to the curriculum, improving training of teachers, strengthening the management of schools, and taking a range of policy measures which would ensure greater success. World Bank funding for example went to a program to provide a specially crafted diploma program for all principals, deputy principals and education officers in St Lucia.
“Was the plan ever to have children who were at the bottom of the Common Entrance heap all go to one or a few schools?” I asked Jules next. “No, on the contrary, the plan was to over a period of at least a decade ensure that all schools were raised to a higher standard of provision and performance,” Jules said. “After we set these standards, we audited all existing schools against them and we asked the architects to design the new schools using these new standards. It is interesting that even the so-called elite schools such as the Convent and SMC, fell very short of the new standards. The idea was to raise all boats and not pull down any so that others could rise,” Jules revealed.
Those new standards were, however, not just about physical infrastructure, but included staffing provisions also with the concept that secondary schools should ideally be staffed by graduate teachers who were qualified teachers. “The thrust of this was to ensure that we could eventually reach a point of equity in provision. Every school in St Lucia—whether in Bouton or in Castries; whether Convent or George Charles—should be staffed by the most qualified and competent teachers available,” Jules emphasized.
On the question of placement and zoning this was an area which Jules says drew some of the most debate and contention. “The tension was between preserving parental choice (which is very important) and zoning of schools. We felt that we could only talk about zoning after the standard for all schools was raised sufficiently. Then the Ministry could truthfully say to a parent that ‘it does not matter which secondary school your child goes to, they will enjoy the same quality of education and caliber of teachers,’” he says.
The idea was for the gradual introduction of zoning as the standards were improved in schools, retain parental choice by allowing an agreed percentage of top performers to select the school of their choice (example if you were in the top 15 percent you could choose to attend any secondary school on island) and other students would be assigned to schools nearest to their area of residence.
This move Dr Jules says would help demolish what he describes as “Education Apartheid.” “This policy was designed to move away from the rigid stratification of schools in which the best schools always received the best students, were given the best facilities and the best teachers. That type of stratification could only lead to “educational apartheid” in which the majority of students were not provided with the quality of support and facilities necessary to bring out the best in them,” Jules stressed. He cited the Ciceron Secondary School as an example where an entirely new curriculum was set up for interactive learning and computer modules were purchased for teaching the major subjects. The former PS noted the progress of the school and was fulsome in his praise for the former Principal Ron Isaac who has since been transferred to the Ministry of Education’s IT department.
A number of initiatives Dr Jules admitted had been introduced here to address the illiteracy problems at the primary and secondary levels. Along with Michael Walker, the Ministry started work on an online literacy, numeracy and health education program that had a TV component, some simple readers, online exercises and a student management system and training of teachers.
Additionally the Minimum Standards Test (MST) was designed to ensure that students were performing to the minimum standards expected for their grade level and it was introduced at both primary and secondary levels so that there would be enough time to do the necessary remediation before they reach these decisive exams.
I then put the following to Dr Jules; “In one of your reports you stated “there is growing evidence that stratification of schools is contributing to social inequality through the marginalization of poorer, less performing students.” Lera Pascal Principal of George Charles in an interview with me said about the Education system in Saint Lucia “it discriminates, it is elitist and it does not give equal opportunity to the students when you categorize students,” I would like you to further expound on your statement and also ask you whether there was any merit to Lera Pascal’s statement.
Said Jules: “I fully agree with Ms Pascal’s statement. The way the system operates it gives full support to the successful schools and the others are not provided with the level of compensatory support necessary to move them from weak performance to higher performance.
If you send the best students to a particular school, provide it with the best facilities, staff it with the most qualified teachers, provide the most competent principal—it will obviously produce the best results. If you add to that the impact of class and privilege— it widens the stratification. Generally speaking, the more educated your parents are the stronger the chances that they will provide (and can afford) the best educational support at home—which is a tremendous boost to the child’s chances. Unless a poor parent truly understands that a good education is the way out of poverty for their child, that child is disadvantaged. The most developed societies and the most successful societies (Finland, Singapore) all ensure that education provides a level playing field. Societies in which privilege becomes entrenched and supported by social institutions inevitably face huge problems with crime —there is a sense of hopelessness in the face of the system which leads people to get ahead by any means necessary.”
Jules then spoke on the CCSLC an assessment program for Secondary Schools which he told us was taking some time to gain total acceptance, but that the Ministry of Education in St Lucia had formally indicated their intention to adopt it. The CCSLC he says should not be seen as an Exam but as a Program that is aimed at ensuring that every student who enters secondary school achieves the key skills and competencies that a good secondary education should provide. It focuses on English and Mathematics’ core concepts and their application and a cluster of options that can be selected by individual ministries.
The mandatory minimum 5 CXC subject for all Secondary School Students Jules indicated to the STAR is a direction that many Caribbean countries are taking and it is consistent with a worldwide trend to raise standards of performance and output. “It is not enough however to just mandate this. Measures must be put in place to ensure that students are able to not just write the exams but succeed in them,” he affirmed. These measures he says are to include the improvement of the quality of teaching, making learning fun and more exciting to students and helping students to understand the importance of some of the subjects to their future career options.
Finally, Dr Jules offered a number of recommendations on the way forward for our Education system. Among them: ensuring that the most competent persons are appointed to head the schools in crisis and if necessary bring back some renown retired principals on short term assignment to work alongside and mentor new appointees. He also suggested the refreshing of staffing of the schools by transferring teachers across the system to help break cliques which develop over years and which are detrimental to their effective administration. Apart from quality teachers Jules also believes that community groups, civic organizations and citizens should be invited to play a more active role in support of these schools to ease the pressure on teachers by leading extra-curricula activities in sports, and student interest areas. In closing he says “we should engage and challenge students to play their part in the governance of the school, in improving the public image of the school and in making the school a model institution in the community.”
(Next week another voice calls for the abolition of the Common Entrance Exam amidst the launch of a computer education program)