Ministry official sabotaging education?

Minstry official sabotaging education?

Michael Walker explains why he had no choice but to go public with his complaints about the Education Ministry PS. The future education of St Lucia’s children is on the line!

As of March 24, at 8:30am, 4,800,000 Euros were worth EC$ 18,386,230.64. This is the amount of money that has been available to the Ministry of Education since May 2009, when the Minister of Education signed a document concerning the grant from the European Union for a project that was, to all intents and purposes, identical to a project that the InTime team had been working on for several years, even as far back as under the previous administration.

Publicly taking public officials to task due to their non-performance of their duties or because of a perceived abuse of power is never an enviable exercise. Obviously, these people have power; even the most convinced critic will try every means to seek clarification or rectify the situation before going public.

The InTime Project addresses four main areas of perceived concern in the educational environment in St Lucia; briefly, they are:

—the need for computerization in primary schools and the provision of content

—curriculum related work—for those computers,

—the need for teacher-training in the use of computers and the integration of computer assisted teaching into the syllabus,

—the improvement and enhancement of the Ministry of Education’s abilities to administer the school system and to track and evaluate the progress of every child,

—the inclusion of every family in every area of the country in the education process through an outreach program that makes educational materials available to all, and finally, to review the present curriculum, teaching materials and teaching methodology

These aims are, as stated earlier, identical in substance to those of the EU-funded Project.

What follows is a brief history of the events that, I felt, compelled me to go public on TALK. I do not have all my dairies at hand, so if the dates are wrong by a few weeks, I apologize in advance.

Around 2001 the InTime Project started a limited pilot project with the agreement of the then Minister of Education and his PS, Dr Didacus Jules. This project continued successfully, despite the disappearance of that PS to the private sector and another PS took over.

In late 2006, there was a shift of power. I attempted, unsuccessfully, for approximately 14 months to gain an audience with the new PS, Rufina Fredrick, and spent many an unhappy hour travelling back and forth to the Ministry for meetings that never materialized.

In December, 2007, Didacus Jules and I met the Prime Minister at his official residence and we presented the InTime Project to him. He was immediately supportive, fully understood the advantages for the nation and instructed me to work with the Ministry.
Easier said than done; it was still impossible to arrange a meeting with the PS. Her new excuse for not meeting me was that she “has not been briefed”. Obviously, the lady did not quite grasp the idea that to be briefed about a project you have to meet and talk with the “briefer”. In February, 2008, in frustration, I wrote a humorous article in the STAR entitled “The Lady Who Lost Her Briefs”.

Throughout the early part of 2008, I submitted, to the Ministry, more than one detailed description of the project along the lines outlined above. This is important, because at some time in 2008, the PS asked Mr Frances Jn Baptiste to prepare a proposal, which anyone can see is along the very same lines as our already existing project, for the European Union.

Mr Frances Jn Baptiste has been a great supporter of our project throughout. I believe him to be an honest, hard-working person. I do not suspect for a moment that he “stole” any of our ideas. I do, however, wonder how much the PS was influenced by the InTime Project when she “briefed” him. I suppose we shall never know. Until August, 2010, we were not aware of the EU proposal or any of its details; but more on that later.

During the rest of 2008, we continued with the InTime Project. We were, by then, providing NTN with half an hour of fresh educational television daily at no cost. We financed everything ourselves. We have never asked the government for financial support in any way. We simply wanted to work with them as benefactors.
2008 passed with still no meeting with the PS, despite three more meetings with the PM and a couple with the Minister of Education. People in very high places were beginning to add their complaints to mine.

In 2009, things came to a head after thirty months of fruitless attempts to meet the PS. I contacted the Embassy of Taiwan and presented the project to them. Brazenly, I asked them to provide computers to every primary school in the country and gave them the “brief” that the PS had ignored for so long.

After close scrutiny in Taiwan and meetings between the Prime Minister and the Ambassador, the project was approved. In March, 2009, at a meeting with the Minister of Education, which the invited PS refused to attend even though she was in the next room, (I know this because she accidentally popped her head out and in again, like a frightened rabbit, as we were about to leave). I was asked by the Minister to undertake a telephone survey of the schools to ascertain the needs. This I did, and presented the report to the Minister and the Ambassador within a week.

By May, we were ready to roll. We were given the go-ahead by the Ministry to start the implementation of our project in all schools by holding a planned series of workshops from September 2009 to the end of the school year 2012. Naturally, the PS did not cooperate; all contact was with the Chief Education Officer and her staff.  We held initial orientation workshops on the projects for Ministry officials, for CAMDU, for District Officers and for Principals so that everyone would be informed. Then we started our big push by holding various types of workshop for every teacher in the primary school system.

The only big problem we have encountered so far has been the unreadiness of the schools to accept our donations. Some schools, even today 22 months after we started the implementation, complain that they do not have desks and chairs for the computers.
Time and time again, attempts were made to delay the project behind our backs. The Embassy was even asked to stop me from delivering computers and other materials because the Ministry had no money to upgrade the schools.

In June, 2010, the Ministry and the Embassy hosted a ceremony to celebrate the InTime project. Even the PS had a few kind words to say. Afterwards, I expressed to her that it was time for us to cooperate. These were the first words I ever spoke to her.

Okay, time for a recap. We had our “inaugural meeting” with the Minister in March 2009, as stated above. In May, 2009, just a month later, the Minister signed a document that gave St Lucia immediate access to about 18,000,000 EC dollars for the computerization of primary schools, the upgrading of schools, the training of teachers, a review of the curriculum and an outreach program for rural communities; exactly what the InTime program was doing.

omehow, in the past 22 months from May 2009 to March 2011, it has never, apparently, occurred to the PS that this money could be used to prepare the schools for the millions of dollars worth of donations from the InTime project, Taiwan and my family—so far a package worth some 10.8 million dollars. It gets worse.

Typically, a European Union Project goes through several stages. A proposal is submitted. After some time it is accepted. The recipient is informed, and is given a certain time to get everything in place so that the money can be utilized at once. Upon the signing of the agreement, the money is immediately available and the clock starts ticking. The recipient is allowed 36 months to assign contracts and determine where the money is going. Thereafter, the recipient nation has 24—sometimes 36 —months to complete the work, but no new contracts can be signed.

Today, 22 months after the agreement was signed, the EU Project has done three things; bought a car, held a launch at a hotel, and placed ads. They have just over a year to spend 18 million dollars effectively and usefully for the children of St Lucia. This translates, by the way, into around 70,000 dollars a day, given a 5-day week. If the money is not spent by May 2012, it is lost.

Some time last year, I suspect that “someone” reminded the PS that all this money was going to waste. For unknown reasons, on August 28, 2011, the Government’s National Review, a fortnightly newspaper supplement, announced that Ministry of Education had 4.8 Million Euros to spend on computerization, etc.

But nothing happened; not even after Hurricane Tomas a month later did the PS remember that she had all this money that could—with a little imagination—be used to “upgrade” schools and computer classrooms and replace computers and books donated by the InTime project.

In January, 2011, the Ministry “launched” their project yet again, at a ceremony held at a Vieux Fort hotel and “again” announced that they had millions of dollars for schools. However, up to a day like today, schools continue to beg for extra money from InTime for chairs, desks, and burglar bars.

Now the plot thickens. Why did they hold the launch? Well, it turns out that the EU, desperate to get St Lucia to use the funds, applied a little pressure. Soon after the launch, the day before Independence actually, inspectors from the EU arrived on island to try to find out what was going on. Tuesday was a holiday. On Wednesday and Thursday they held meetings and visited schools. Not a word was said about the InTime project to the inspectors.

Unfortunately for the PS, every single school they visited praised the achievements of the InTime project. The inspectors demanded a meeting with us. On Thursday afternoon I received an email indicating that personnel from the EU were on island and would like to meet me. Unfortunately, they had a very tight schedule so they could only spare me half an hour the following Tuesday just before their departure.

Boy, did I smell a rat! I made a couple of calls to old friends in the business—after all I have been doing this sort of work for 40 years—and discovered what was going on. I, and others, met the EU people for several frank discussions. The outcome was that they recommended strongly that the Ministry cooperate with the InTime project to the full. There was no other way for the country to “absorb” such a large amount of money in such a short time if it did not hop aboard the InTime express. The
country was warned that it would lose the money if it were not used correctly by May 2012.

I believe that the PS was asked to attend a meeting of Cabinet to explain why the EU money had not been utilized at all. My informants tell me her deputy attended instead.
Coincidentally, immediately after the visit from the EU, Taiwan held an obligatory ceremony at Union to celebrate the next stage in the InTime program. The PS called the Embassy and tried to stop the ceremony because, as it was reported, only about 20 principals would be able to attend. The ceremony went ahead and over 110 teachers and principals attended. I again asked the PS for a meeting, but as always, without success.
On this occasion, the Prime Minister forcefully declared that it was essential for the Ministry to cooperate with the InTime project. I have submitted suggestions concerning several ways in which we could cooperate, to no avail. I remain ignored. And the clock keeps ticking.

The PS has never in her career as PS deigned to meet me or anyone involved with the InTime program to discuss cooperation despite our dedication to education in St Lucia and the almost 11 million price tag of our efforts to help the children, teachers, schools and general population of this country.

Time is passing. The PS, by what I consider to be her handling of the EU grant, has put the country in great danger of becoming a bad risk in the donor community because of this and other failures to use grants and donations correctly and in a timely fashion. Grants will dry up if we cannot use them.

I have tried for almost 5 years to have a meeting with the PS without success. Going public was therefore my only option.

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