An Open Letter to Robert Lewis

Education Minister Robert Lewis

Dear Minister,

Somehow, education has survived the past five years thanks to the resilience of teachers, the determination of principals, the innate ability of children to learn, and the stubbornness of school buildings.

It is my fervent hope that the Ministry of Education under your leadership will continue the efforts of the previous SLP administration to improve, revitalize and strengthen education throughout the island.

I have voiced my criticism of the Ministry’s abysmal performance during the past five years firmly and often, to no avail. The past is past—as the Lion King said—and it is time to move on.

I would like to take this opportunity to offer a few ideas that you might find worthy of consideration during your term in office.

Generally speaking, Secondary Schools are in a mess, due, paradoxically, in no small measure to the successes of the previous SLP administration that introduced Universal Secondary Education (USE) in St Lucia.

In my experience from working in almost every corner of the world, USE always runs into the same problem: they build schools, they provide places but they neither train teachers to deal with the new reality, nor do they cater for children who previously would never have been accepted at secondary school.

Children who start a new school with the knowledge that they do not really belong there, that they are sub-standard, that they are holding back the rest of the class, and that, because of this, teachers do not want to teach them, have, generally speaking, little hope of success. If they become disruptive, disinterested and disheartened, they become a problem that grows with time.

An even more unpleasant truth is that USE—or even Universal Tertiary Education in more advanced countries—leads to an inflation in qualifications. If you are the only PhD in town, your career is made; if you are one of a thousand, you are back to square one in the job market. Yes, you are better educated, but your prospects are bleak. USE must be marketed and promoted as a valuable, beneficial tool in the country’s economic, social, intellectual and moral growth.

For these and other reasons, it is essential that the Ministry tackle this issue immediately and aggressively by providing teacher training, remedial educational content and the technical means to allow all new entrants to the secondary school system an opportunity to fulfill their potential, even if this means a major redefinition of the goals of secondary education and a sea change in the attitudes of teachers towards their clients and the market place’s perception of school-leavers.

This is not the place for an in-depth discussion, but suffice to say that in countries with much more advanced and better funded educational systems, such as the Scandinavian counties, good grades in Art, Music, Dance, Home Economics, Cooking, Woodwork, Metalwork, Agriculture, etc. are just as valuable as good grades in Maths and Science. In a country like St Lucia that is so dependent on tourism, it is all the more important that we produce world class artists, performers, chefs, craftsmen, artisans of all kinds and other specialists that can sustain and develop our most significant industry, tourism, and provide the St Lucian community at large with respected, top quality services to the benefit of all.

The InTime Project, which continues to change education at primary level through the generous assistance of Taiwan and her Ambassador Tom Chou, stands ready to continue its work at secondary level.

Birth rates are falling, which instead of being seen as an opportunity, is seen as a problem. There is not an educational expert in the world who would not advocate small classes for improved performance, yet class sizes remain constant despite reduced enrollment and the number of teachers is reduced. Now is the time to realize the dream of smaller classes and more individualized tuition, even if it means a certain amount of retraining but no cutting back on the number of qualified teachers in the system.

For incomprehensible reasons best known to the previous administration, beautiful schools stand almost empty while prestigious institutions remain housed in crumbling ruins, Is it not time to merge the Convent and the College into a modern, integrated, Joseph and Mary Secondary School in a clean, efficient, well-equipped, healthy environment? The Marigot Secondary School stands empty – what a waste!

Single-sex schools should be abolished. If credence is given to arguments in favour of single-sex schools, then all schools should be single sex. Why should a small proportion of children “benefit” or “suffer” from such segregation? Universal Secondary Education means the same opportunities for everyone.

If it were desirable to preserve the architecture, the College or Convent buildings could become the home of new secondary school that could perhaps be biased in favour of the arts – without taking away the need for a general boosting of the arts in all other secondary schools, of course. Alternatively, if the old buildings are not deemed to be of historical, social or architectural significance, they should be demolished to make way for redevelopment.

Is it too much of a dream to wonder whether we could provide our children with better sporting facilities at school? Perhaps the idea of “specialist” schools could be extended to a secondary school that favoured athleticism. After all, most great athletes started their careers way before their sixteenth birthday. Given that for many young people athletes are successful role models, is it not time for us to recognize that sports provide employment to hundreds of thousands of people worldwide? A secondary school in Vieux Fort that concentrated on skills and vocational aspects of education and sports without diminishing the benefits of success in traditional academic subjects would open the doors to many new opportunities for our youth.

The University of the West Indies has an Agronomy & Science Establishment at St Augustine in Trinidad and Tobago, but this would not preclude the establishment of a University of Agronomy Campus at Grand Riviere, St Lucia. With the unique help of the Taiwanese, there is already a flourishing farm that helps train young agriculturalists. The existing secondary school in a strategically accessible situation halfway between Castries and Vieux Fort would provide an ideal basic building block for such a prestigious establishment and revitalize the surroundings communities.

Ambassador Tom Chou has bee an asset to this country in ways unappreciated by a significant few. Taiwan has donated on average at least 32 million dollars annually to St Lucia. The Ambassador has been able to use his influence to prioritize grass root projects, IT and education. We should continue to capitalize on his dedication in these areas for as long as he decides to stay. He is already the longest serving ambassador of his country in any one post. It is surely a matter of time before he decides to leave.

Education for life, or learning from cradle to grave, is a fact of modern day living. So-called pre-schools are springing up all over the place. Private infant, primary and secondary schools appear in increasing numbers. Opportunities galore exist for entrepreneurs who are willing to create solutions where formal education does not exist or breaks down. In its broadest sense, “special needs” also refers to teachers who are interested in setting up their own establishments.

The CARE program has been struggling for years despite its successes in providing training for teenagers, often those “at risk.” Even Monroe College and other institutions of higher learning owe their existence in St Lucia to a lack of tertiary-level educational opportunities. Without order, there remains only anarchy; we must find a way to bring all institutions of learning under one umbrella without impinging on their independence, image, integrity and financial viability. Above all, we must be able to guarantee quality.

Soufriere or thereabouts would be my first choice for the location for a new type of Teacher Training College that offered qualified applicants from all walks of life the opportunity to serve by addressing the special educational needs that are increasingly significant in a system that is moving to cater for a broader, more varied client basis at an ever accelerating rate.

By “special needs” I do not only mean the needs of blind, deaf, mute, or physically handicapped pupils; I mean also the needs of slow learners, hyperactive pupils, pupils with limited attention span, slow developers and a host of other real or perceived burdens that may prevent them from realizing their individual potential.

People with special skills, such as potters, painters, weavers, basket makers, high jumpers, sprinters, cricketers, playwrights, and a host of others, could be trained as special needs teachers and taught how to pass on their skills in the new vocational secondary schools. In this way Arts and Sports would be revitalized; artisans, artists and athletes would receive incomes through their teaching that would supplement their incomes during lean times.

Adult education deserves recognition and respect as an area of special needs and situation. People who missed the opportunity the first time round – or even the first several times round – but are still willing to go back to school despite daytime jobs and other responsibilities deserve to have the best trained teachers who really know how to motivate adults and help solve the problems the mature learner faces.

Other special needs cases exist: Bordelais has an education programme that appears to operate independently of the ministry, but needs to be adopted and supported by the national system; the Boys’ Training Centre at Massade is in desperate need of guidance and support; and we must not forget Upton Gardens for Girls.

A Teacher Training College such as this would generate top quality teachers trained in all aspects of special needs and situations teaching. I am confident that the courses offered would attract interest from countries throughout the region. St Lucia could and should be the educational powerhouse of the region.

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