Who’s steering the Education Ministry?

Is Education Minister Arsene James (far right) alseep at the wheel in his own ministry? And could St Lucia lose vital EU funds because of this?

Is Education Minister Arsene James (far right) alseep at the wheel in his own ministry? And could St Lucia lose vital EU funds because of this?

To hear many persons put it you would think that Sir John Compton, former Prime Minister of Saint Lucia, practically put his hands in his pockets, and shelled out millions of dollars for the construction of the many schools that “he” built. Those who know the facts, know that many of these schools that “Sir John built” were done through skillful negotiations (maybe) and the benevolence of William Hess of Hess Oil Industries—a company which had been doing business here for decades. And then there was Sir John’s favourite school, the Castries Comprehensive Secondary, where he had more than a passing interest in the students—education of course! That school was built through the assistance of the Canadian Government.

Saint Lucia has always depended on foreign aid and funding to grow the education system, which has also had the support of Anglican and Roman Catholic parishes for the building of schools. In some cases, the aid has been handed to us with no visible strings attached, simply terms and conditions and a time frame in which the allocations can be utilized or lost if not used.

In several of our recent articles and interviews on the Education, a common name keeps popping up, hardly in a favourable light. When we spoke to the Principal of the George Charles Secondary School recently, she informed us that the Permanent Secretary and the Chief Education Officer had refused to discuss outstanding issues with the school. And last week, in an interview with the PTA of the Augier Primary School (see story in center) the PS was described as less than forthcoming in addressing a six year old problem at the school.

Last week, a source at the Ministry of Education informed us that several attempts to have meetings with the PS to discuss the way forward for an ICT project funded by the EU  and an “In Time” project for Primary Schools which would revolutionize learning and teaching here through the use of computers were futile. The project funded by the Taiwanese Government and businessman Michael Walker will provide computers as well as flat screen TVs to each Primary School on the island (see centre). The STAR recently covered the launch of both projects which was attended by several Government Ministers offering colourful speeches.

But then on Thursday there was this bold declaration from Michael Walker who appeared as a guest on DBS’ TALK hosted by Nicole Mc Donald (who was sitting in for Rick Wayne).

Addressing his experience of the process in getting things done here he said: “There is the security, then the reception, then it is the elevator, then it is the person on the floor then it is the secretary at the end of the corridor, and all the way up they have their little power bases.”

He went on: “And what happened with this project was, I don’t work that way. I went to the top. I couldn’t talk to the PS, she just would not talk to me, I tried for fourteen months, to get an interview with her and couldn’t, so in the end I went to the Prime Minister. And interestingly enough when I went to see him I was accompanied by Didacus Jules, who was the PS in the Labour Party (Government) and who had worked with me for six years. And he came with me to present the project to the Prime Minister and he (the Prime Minister) signed on immediately. He was enthusiastic and he said this was fantastic, he was supportive . . . ” Mc Donald interjected, “that is fantastic, the fact that you were with Mr Jules and the PM responded favourably. . .”

“Yes and that I think is a very a encouraging sign that this is one of the few projects that survived the change of Government,” Walker pressed on.

Michael Walker then went on to say that after two or three meetings with PM King back in 2008-2009, there were nine meetings with the Minister of Education whom he said was equally supportive. A survey of the schools to find out how many children were involved, how many computers would be necessary, how many classes and so on was completed in March of 2009. The Taiwanese then came on board and meetings were set up which according to Walker the PS never attended.

“I never met her. All these years I have never met her at a meeting and I just met her accidentally at a ceremony,” he said. “We had a launch ceremony, 2010 . . . , but in reality we have not received any support whatsoever from the Ministry of Education,” he expressed.

Several workshops for teachers and principals to educate and familiarize them with the project have been held, however, some schools are not ready. Classrooms are not ready, there are problems with security, some schools do not have desks,” Walker revealed.
LIME has supported the project by ensuring the schools are Internet ready however. But for their part, the Ministry of Education and by extension the Government has not been pulling its weight on the project.

“And now we discover in 2011, that the Ministry has had available since May 2009, the same year we started, the Ministry has had available from the European Union US$17.86 million dollars for the computerization of schools,” Walker dropped, catching the host by surprise who said jaw dropped, “how was that suddenly discovered?”
“The EU, I presume became anxious, because no one was spending the money, so they sent an inspector out here to find out what they were doing twenty two months later where they (the Ministry) had not even opened a bank account on the project.”
“How can that be?” Mc Donald asked obviously surprised and both guest and host sat in a few moments of silence obviously dumb-founded.

At the launch of the ICT project back in February, The Ministry’s Permanent Secretary Rufina Frederick was quite eloquent in her speech quoting President Barack Obama’s last State of the Union address to make the case for the growth of IT here in Saint Lucia.
“The rules have changed,” she read. “In a single generation, revolutions in technology have transformed the way we live, work and do business.” She then cited China as an example where they took the opportunities provided by technology and “started educating their children earlier and longer, with greater emphasis on math
and science.”

So just why are we not moving forward when other persons have taken an interest in investing in us? Or would the PS have preferred if the Chinese and or maybe Obama and the United States were the ones helping us and not the EU? Or is this simply another case of personalities getting in the way of progress here in Saint Lucia or once again is someone simply asleep at the wheel or worse, drunk on arrogance at the slow wheel of Government here in Saint Lucia?

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